Invasive species an ongoing nightmare

John Maxwell

Introduced pest animals and plants have already wiped out some of Australia’s native species and, despite years of efforts at eradication, the situation has only deteriorated as they now pose a threat to our unique wildlife greater than climate change. A new report by Australia’s peak scientific research organisation CSIRO and the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS) warns now is the time for urgent national action.

“Plagues of pests are not a distant problem to worry about tomorrow – they’re here now,” the report says. “While current strategies have slowed some impacts, the challenge is for all Australians to work together to come up with new ways to stop the harm caused by invasive species.”

The report considers the big picture and doesn’t advocate any particular control measures. “By working together and investing in innovative technology and management approaches, we can ensure Australia’s extraordinary, irreplaceable native animals and plants can survive for future generations to treasure,” it says.

Invasive species are a problem for many nations but have been especially devastating for Australia, causing the extinction of 29 mammal species, five breeds of frog and four bird species while others teeter on the brink. So what’s to be done? A problem of this magnitude requires a multi-strand approach and there would certainly be a role for recreational hunters in dealing with some introduced pests including feral pigs and cats, foxes and, of course, rabbits.

The European rabbit now infests two-thirds of Australia and is ranked as the single biggest menace to threatened native species, costing on average $216 million a year in lost farm production. That’s followed by feral cats, numbering up to 6.3 million depending on environmental conditions. Cats kill more than 456 million native mammals, 272 million birds, 92 million frogs and 446 million reptiles each year and cats gone wild have contributed to the extinction of 27 native species and threaten the survival of 124 more.

Feral pigs number up to 23.5 million and inhabit 45 per cent of Australia, costing more than $100 million a year in crop damage and control measures. Then there’s cane toads which have invaded more than a million square kilometres of Australia and continue to advance up to 60 kilometres a year in Western Australia.

And there are many more – European carp and fire ants, weeds such as lantana, blackberry and prickly acacia and pathogens including myrtle rust and chytrid fungus. These pests haven’t found their way here of their own accord – all arrived through human agency – example rabbits and cane toads and they’ll be helped along by climate change. Cats revel in post-bushfire conditions to prey on natives which have lost their sheltering greenery. Rabbits feast on green shoots while cane toad spread is aided by warmer climates.

Australia has enjoyed significant victories in some areas with border controls having been completely successful in keeping out many pests and stock diseases such as foot and mouth and African swine fever. Either could be spread by ferals and the cost would be enormous – up to $50 billion in 10 years for foot and mouth alone. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease would be devastating for our farm sector and since it’s highly contagious it could easily spread into feral populations such as pigs, requiring an immediate national response.

The report says there are two possible futures for Australia in dealing with invasive species: business as usual (and the problem just gets worse) or concerted action. “Australia is a world leader in developing pest and weed solutions such as biocontrol agents and baits,” the report says. “We now need to take advantage of new genetic and digital technologies to create solutions for the 21st century that can find and manage invasive species more cheaply, easily and quickly. These new technologies have the potential to be game changers in how we tackle pests and weeds in the future.”

That includes advanced technology to detect, track and trace, including drones and satellite systems with automated systems using artificial intelligence and machine learning being able to detect and track incursions. Australia is at the forefront of biological controls with new genetic techniques offering fresh opportunities, for example, by making all the offspring of a particular species the same sex.

The report doesn’t say so in as many words, except by implication in some of the case studies cited, but lethal control measures seem to be an accepted, useful and in some circumstances vital solution for feral animals. Other than by those on the very fringe, that seems to be pretty much accepted.

We all know about the Greens and their views on legally owned guns and hunting but in its political party rankings ahead of the 2019 federal election, the Invasives Species Council rated the Greens above the Coalition and Labor, primarily for their comprehensive plan. Ranked right at the bottom were the Animal Justice Party and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.

The latter may not have thought too hard about the need for a comprehensive policy on invasives but they’re left in the shade by the Animal Justice Party which countenances no lethal control measures for any  animal species, even mice in plague proportions. “Poisoning mice is cruel and ineffective in the long-term,” says the Party’s position statement while advocating research on non-lethal fertility control.

Unsurprisingly the group wants duck hunting banned forthwith and is calling for an inquiry into cruelty aspects on any use of shotguns in killing animals. “We are confident the scientific evidence will lead such an enquiry to recommend a ban on the use of shotguns for the killing of any animal,” it says, adding that invasive species didn’t ask to be introduced to Australia and should not be punished just for existing.

“The AJP recognises there’s no simple solution to controlling the impact of introduced species but believes only non-lethal, humane, effective and species-specific methods are acceptable,” its policy says. The group has two MPs in the NSW upper house, elected in 2015 and 2019, and one in the Victorian upper house, elected in 2018.

Putting that in perspective the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has three MPs in the NSW Legislative Assembly, two in the NSW  Legislative Council and one in the Victorian Legislative Council. As the former executive director of Animal Liberation, NSW Animal Justice Party MP Mark Pearson has some strong views on hunting and hunters.

“Those who engage in this blood sport represent only one per cent of Australians and perhaps not coincidentally the same percentage of people with a psychopathic disorder found in the general population,” he told NSW parliament. That’s pretty close to calling all hunters psychopaths. “The trajectory of current statistics shows that within a generation, hunting will be perceived as a deviant activity,” he added.

The AJP advocates a wholly non-animal diet as does Mr Pearson who, curiously, in 2017 was busted enjoying a fish dish in a Sydney Japanese restaurant. He fessed up to what is totally contrary to the party’s fish policy which says: “Eating fish, whether farmed or wild, is incompatible with AJP’s advocacy of a plant-based diet.” Oops!

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