Australia’s Noah’s Ark Springs a Leak

Australia’s Noah’s Ark Springs a Leak

By by Jaime Eastham

From the moment a lone fox skulked off a container ship in Burnie, Tasmania, in May 1998, the state’s wildlife authorities have been fearing the worst. Despite huge media coverage and an intensive effort by wildlife authorities, that single wily fox was never found and since then, the situation has only worsened.

In the past two years foxes have been deliberately and illegally introduced into Tasmania and they now pose a serious threat to 18 native species.

Terry Reid is head of the state’s newly formed Fox Free Tasmania Task Force, established by the Department of Primary Industries, Water and the Environment. He says fox numbers in Tasmania may have reached 19 and finding them is an arduous task.

“We don’t know how many have been deliberately introduced to Tassie. We’re of the opinion that a litter of cubs was brought over – probably for hunting purposes,” says Reid. “Since then we’ve had a number of sightings and two foxes shot.”

“To be honest, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Tasmania has so far been protected from foxes, which have caused mass extinctions of native fauna in mainland Australia. The European Red Fox was first released near Melbourne in 1855 for recreational hunting. Within 50 years it had spread into Western Australia and by 1893 some shires in Victoria had a bounty on foxes, indicating that they were quickly considered pests. New South Wales soon followed suit.

More than five million foxes are now found throughout southern and central Australia. The tropical regions of the far north are the only areas to escape its wrath. Along with the feral cat, the fox is one of the most widespread of feral animals in Australia.

Foxes have become such a threat mainly due to their adaptable nature, as well as the fact that they have few natural predators. They can survive in many different habitats, ranging from arid through to alpine as well as urban areas. In non-urban areas, foxes are most abundant in lightly wooded areas typically found in agricultural landscapes, which offer a wide variety of shelter and food.

They are built to be long-distance runners and rely on speed and intelligence to help them escape predators. They are predominantly carnivores, although they eat insects and wild fruit, particularly in summer when their preferred prey is less abundant. In pastoral regions, foxes mainly eat rabbits, lambs and house mice. In alpine and arid areas, such as south-west Western Australia, where these prey are scarce, small native mammals become their targets.

Australia has the worst record of mammalian extinction of any country in the world – largely due to the impact of foxes and feral cats. The fox has contributed to the extinction of several mammals, including some wallaby and bandicoot species, and is hastening the extinction of at least 10 others including the:

eastern barred bandicoot
long footed potoroo
broad toothed rat
New Holland mouse
mountain pygmy possum
brushtailed rock wallaby
broad-shelled tortoise
hooded plover, and
little tern.
Tasmania, on the other hand, has lost only one species of mammal since white settlement – the Tasmanian tiger.

“Tasmania has always been a bit of a Noah’s Ark in terms of being able to hang on to a whole range of species because we never got the dingo and attempts to introduce foxes in the 1800s failed. So we had been quite lucky,” says Reid.

But the state’s luck has not held out. If these 19 foxes are not found and eliminated quickly, several native species could become extinct. Threatened species include the eastern barred bandicoot, the southern brown bandicoot, the eastern quoll and a dozen other bird and mammal species.

Tasmania’s agricultural industry is also under threat, with foxes targeting poultry, sheep and lambs, and potentially spreading diseases such as distemper, canine hepatitis and heartworm.

The task force was established in mid-2001 and originally comprised of just six personnel. But, Reid says, it soon became clear that a major operation was required.

“In December, we began to realise we weren’t skilled enough to be dealing with this problem – we hadn’t had to deal with foxes before in Tasmania,” says Reid. “We’re now in the process of establishing a much larger team.”

The reinforced task force will consist of eight full-time and 15 casual field officers, an organisation and monitoring team of three, a barrier control expert and a scientific liaison officer.

The biggest challenge the task force faces, Reid says, is to eradicate the foxes without harming native species. “Everyone thinks we should be able to go out there with some firearms, do a bit of spotlighting and it’s all over. If it was that simple we would have done it,” says Reid.

While spotlighting does play a role, it is just one part of a three-pronged strategy. The taskforce is also attempting to modify habitats that are suitable for foxes and trialling a series of baits.

“We are trying to come up with a bait that will get rid of foxes but won’t harm other species. To do that, we are leaving non-poisonous baits and filming the whole process, so we can determine what will attract foxes but deter other species,” says Reid.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s biodiversity campaign coordinator, Charlie Sherwin, says that while the impact of foxes in Tasmania is yet to be seen, if mainland Australia is anything to go by the effects will be devastating.

“Tasmanian native animals are suffering from habitat loss as well as from predation by feral cats. If predation by foxes is added to that, it’s likely that species in Tasmania will go the same way as the rest of Australia,” says Sherwin.