Wiping out the feral animals wreaking havoc across Australia has now been declared “almost impossible” by a scientist from the nation’s leading research agency.
- Cultural and economic value has been placed on many of Australia’s feral animals
- Invasive species have also been labelled the greatest threat to the nation’s native flora and fauna
- Exporting feral animal meat that is marketed for its ecological values could be a way to balance the two interests
Many species are simply too resilient and have spread across much of the country, meaning any attempt would likely be a costly failure.
But even if eradication were possible, there are some who would likely stand opposed to the idea.
Those competing tensions were laid bare this week, as almost 100 brumbies were found dead in a Central Australian waterhole.
When another 120 dying donkeys, horses and camels were found outside another community a week later, some opposed a planned cull.
Feral horses have been in Australia for so many years now that Central Australia’s Aboriginal communities have formed a rich connection with them.
Similarly feral pigs, which have been in Australia as long as Europeans after arriving with the First Fleet, have become both a burden and an important source of food and income for Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land.
In the nation’s south-east, feral goats provide a much-needed source of revenue to drought-stricken farmers.
And recreational shooting is a popular social past time in many parts of the country.
In Central Australia, feral animals are one of the reasons a local environmental group believes it’s seen “the single greatest rate of mammal extinctions in the world”.
But Territory-based pest controller Stuart Barker believes marrying up economic interests with ecological ones could pave a path forward.
His idea is to create an environmentally oriented export market, using revenue from the export of feral animal meat to keep its population at the lowest sustainable level.
It would also put authorities in a better position to detect a biosecurity threat, which he said currently could go unrecognised for months in feral populations and cost billions to eradicate.
It’s an idea CSIRO research scientist Justin Perry has been exploring for years.
“I think it can be done,” he told the ABC.
‘We’re still grappling with it’
In recent years, Mr Perry worked with Indigenous communities on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, exploring the development of a wild pig industry that could be marketed for its social and environmental values.
Feral pig meat historically had a good market overseas, according to the CSIRO, despite a softening in demand recently as feral boar populations recovered in Europe.
Mr Perry said they found it could be done, but they opted to first take a step back.
Feral animal export for environmental gain had been attempted before and he wanted to ensure he didn’t meet the same pitfalls as others.
Lately, he focussed his attention on better understanding pig population dynamics to give the venture a better chance of success.
“It has to be very thoughtfully done, there has to be a market incentive for the other [ecological] side of the story,” he said.
In his opinion, fresh ideas for managing feral populations were crucial, given many would be almost impossible to eradicate.
“If you talk to anyone that does research, eradication is not possible for some species,” he said.
“It’s almost impossible to control pigs for example, due to their population dynamics.”
On the other hand, he said some species like buffalo could be eradicated if a lot of money went into it, but people did not want to lose the iconic species.
Asked how those social values could be balanced with environmental ones, he said, “we’re still grappling with it”.
‘There’s a fantastic opportunity’
Australia has become the world’s largest goat exporter on the back of its feral populations, according to the CSIRO.
Mr Perry said it proved there was certainly a market for feral animals.
But he said goat harvesters had not yet managed to pair their commercial successes with ecological ones.
While he also said many people were keen to see bounties put on certain pest species, he said these strategies were unsuccessful for many species due to their population dynamics.
This was the reason many ecologists were unenthused by Pauline Hanson’s recent “cash for a cane toad” idea, as the species’ rapid breeding rates would likely counter any culls.
He said the model used to harvest crocodiles in the Territory proved there was a way to provide money to landowners while benefitting an ecosystem.
This system allowed land owners to earn money by selling wild crocodile eggs, ensuring there was an economic value in the predators’ existence.
Yet there was a key difference — the crocodile model was geared at increasing populations, while a feral animal market would have to limit them.
But he was hopeful that a well-thought-out export market could satisfy cultural, economic and environmental interests.
“Personally, I’m very interested in it,” he said.
“There’s a fantastic opportunity in it, if we can think through the complexities.”
Many efforts just a ‘drop in the ocean’
Stuart Barker too often sees a “passion for hunting” mistaken for effective feral animal management.
It’s one of many disconnects he has noted between conservation principles and techniques used on the ground during his 30 years as a pest controller at Humpty Doo.
Many culling programs, for example, he said failed to adequately reduce numbers because the starting population was unknown.
Many researchers, on the other hand, failed to consider whether their plans were feasible at scale.
Like Mr Perry, he believed some of his concerns could be relieved by building an industry around the harvesting of feral species, if revenue was then used to better manage the populations.
He also pointed out it would give people a better chance of detecting a biosecurity threat — which he said could easily go unrecognised for months at the moment as feral populations were so uncontrolled.
“At least you’ve got some control over the populations then,” Mr Barker said.
“And if there was an exotic disease outbreak you’re already a couple of steps up the ladder because you’ve got management of some areas.”
Biosecurity breach could be ‘catastrophic’
An Australian Senate Committee is currently considering the impact of feral goats, pigs and deer.
The nation’s major scientific research agency, the CSIRO, filed a submission noting the biosecurity threat posed by feral animals.
It cited one study that estimated 3,077 cases of foot and mouth disease could occur before the outbreak was detected.
Mr Barker also noted the risk in his submission.
But he also conceded an outbreak is what it would likely take before action is taken to deal with the uncontrolled droves of feral animals that run wild across Northern Australia.
“In terms of biosecurity, unfortunately, it may take an exotic disease to enter Australia before real major action in managing feral pigs is implemented [and other feral animals] and by then it could be too late,” Mr Barker told the committee.
“The detrimental impacts on industries, people, employment and Australia will be catastrophic.
“There is a real chance such a disease may decimate our domestic livestock, cripple many of our agricultural exports and impact on some native species.
“The financial impact, both in the cost of action required and the cost to industry, may be measured in many billions of dollars.”
The committee is due to file a report to the senate mid next month.
Meanwhile, the Northern Territory Government is currently working with all other states and territories to develop a national strategy to deal with feral animals.
Current initiatives underway to manage the populations include Indigenous rangers, surveys and aerial shooting.