Millions of animals face death sentence in Australia

Millions of exotic animals—from camels and cane toads to horses and foxes—face extermination in Australia under recommendations by a parliamentary committee.

A population explosion of species introduced to this isolated continent since European settlement began more than 200 years ago is a growing threat to agriculture and native wildlife, the committee of inquiry has found.

“The exotic species need to be eradicated,” committee chairperson Alby Schultz said. “That’s the first point I make.”

Shooting and poisoning will be among methods recommended by the committee, which has been investigating the problem for more than a year and will present its report to Parliament by early November, he said.

The Department of the Environment lists animals of “significant concern” as including feral camels (500 000), horses (300 000), donkeys (five million), pigs (up to 23-million), cane toads, European wild rabbits, European red foxes, cats and goats.

Some of the animals, such as camels, horses and donkeys, were introduced as beasts of burden. Pigs and goats were brought in as food sources by early settlers and foxes for recreational hunting.
Others, such as cane toads, were, ironically, imported to eradicate agricultural pests.

With few natural predators and vast, sparsely populated areas in which to roam, the populations have soared, putting pressure on native species by preying on them, competing for food and shelter, destroying habitat and spreading diseases.

Shultz, describing the need for action as “very urgent”, dismissed fears that it would be impossible to shoot Australia’s half-million feral camels, for example, let alone the millions of other animals.

“You can, because the donkey is a classic example of that. In Western Australia, they had a wild-donkey population of somewhere between 400 000 and 500 000 and they’ve basically eradicated them,” he said.

This was done through shooting from helicopters after using female “Judas donkeys” wearing radio collars to lead marksmen to the feral herds, and the same can be done with camels and goats, he said.

‘One of the most serious threats’

The conservation group WWF Australia agrees there is a need to cull feral animals, programme leader for species Nicola Markus said, while stressing that it should be done as humanely as possible.

“WWF Australia certainly recognises that invasive species, and that includes feral animals like cats and foxes and camels and cane toads and rabbits, are without a doubt one of the most serious threats to native biodiversity that there is.

“Along with land-clearing and climate change, they’d be right up there,” she said. “They are feral animals and they don’t belong in this country and they’ve had an incredible impact on the environment in the time they’ve been here.

“Do we think there’s a need for them to be here? No, we don’t. Do we think it’s realistic that every last one of them can be culled and eradicated? I don’t think it would be a bad thing if that could happen, but it’s highly unlikely.”

Shultz acknowledged, however, that some animal rights activists will be outraged by his committee’s recommendations, charging that they are cruel and inhumane.

“The animal liberationists as an example gave evidence to the committee and one of the groups said the introduced exotic species should be allowed to evolve into our natural ecosystem, even at the expense of endangered native species.

“Now, that’s outrageous and my committee certainly won’t be advocating that.

“What we’ll be advocating is the total eradication, where possible, of introduced exotic species in the interest of protecting our native flora and fauna.

“I don’t have any sympathy as an individual for those groups who think that it’s fine to allow feral animals to decimate our native flora and fauna simply because they have an ideological view about the way in which some of these animals are killed,” he said.

Shultz said the cost of just a specific few of the pest animal species to agriculture is estimated to be about Aus$720-million (R3,5-billion) a year, but the figure will be much higher if they are all taken into account.

The WWF puts the overall cost of foreign invasive animal and plant species—also a major problem—at Aus$4,7-billion a year.—AFP

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