Second-biggest biosecurity operation in nation’s history sees $411m committed to eradicating invasive species that threatens agriculture, wildlife, tourism and outdoor lifestyle.
They are one of the world’s worst invasive species, and now, more than two decades after they are believed to have arrived in Australia, the country is launching the second-biggest biosecurity operation in its history to eradicate red imported fire ants.
State, territory and federal agricultural ministers met in Melbourne on Wednesday and agreed to spend $411.4m over the next 10 years, endorsing a biosecurity operation second only in size and ambition to the country’s successful eradication of bovine tuberculosis, which started in the 1970 and took nearly three decades.
The eradication effort has been spearheaded by an unlikely alliance of environmentalists and farmers, who are equally concerned about the devastating effects the ants would have on Australia’s lifestyle, economy and environment if they become established.
First detected in Australia in 2001, but probably brought in years earlier, the South American “red imported fire ants” are thought to have caused dozens of deaths in the United States, where they have become established and cost the economy $7bn a year.
In Australia seven separate incursions have been recorded – four in Brisbane, two elsewhere in Queensland and one in Sydney – with time-limited and underfunded control programs managing to eradicate all but one incursion.
The one incursion remaining – in the suburbs of Brisbane – was first observed in 2001, although according to experts, was probably present up to ten years earlier.
Without a major eradication push, experts say outbreaks will spread and lead to an uncontrolled and established population that will change Australia forever. According to the an independent review conducted for the federal government, it would have a bigger impact than rabbits, cane toads, foxes, camels, wild dogs and feral cats combined.
“If Australia fails to eradicate fire ants almost no corner of the continent will be safe from these menacing predators,” said the chief executive of the Invasive Species Council, Andrew Cox.
Ben Hoffman, an exotic ant specialist at the CSIRO in Darwin, agreed. “This species is ranked as one of the worst invasive species in the world for very good reason,” he said. “You only need to look to the United States to see what would happen here.”