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Australian Environmental Issues

Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

Crocodile
So you wrestle crocs...

Dingo
Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

Echidna
The wise little gnomes of Australia

Emu
Victors of the great Emu war

Flies
Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Kangaroo
Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Snakes
Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Wombat
Keg of muscle

Quoll
The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories

 

 

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Culling and control of Australian wildlife

"Our challenge today is to become more ecologically astute, to recognise that native species can be pests too, that will sometimes need controlling (killing). Australia will have matured as a nation when we can calmly debate the merits of shooting koalas, for conservation's sake." Biologist Tim Low

The culling of animals is a staple of Australian environmental policy; however, in terms of achieving a biodiverse ecosystem that is adaptive to change, the cullings are highly dubious and often mask economic or ideological agendas. When native animals like kangaroos are the target, culling can stifle natural selection. Instead of the weakest dying or being picked off by predators, it is the strongest that catch the eye of the shooter. When it is a non-native animals, often the environmental consequences are far worse. For example, if populations of rabbits are rapidly removed from the ecosystem, then the quolls, dingos, eagles, cats, goannas and foxes that were hunting the rabbits seek out alternative animals, such as lizards, bilbies, wallabies, to hunt. With large numbers of predators hunting only small populations of prey, the prey stand little chance of survival. With prey hunted to extinction, predator numbers drop. Ironically, fast breeding rabbits then repopulate an ecosystem with few predators.

There are alternatives to culling. Professor Chris Johnson is one of the new generation of scientists that believe biodiversity can be enhanced with an ideology of addition rather than eradication. Johnson has argued in favour of breeding and reintroducing dingos, quolls and the devils to the various mainland ecosystems that humans have eradicated them from. Professor Johnson has stressed that native predator communities need to be rebuilt as they have the ability to remain in balance with native prey. As native predators replace the feral predators, or reduce their numbers, native prey is able to rebound.

Professor Johnson has some interesting research backing up his proposal. He has found that in places where dingoes are rare or absent, and foxes and cats are abundant, 50 per cent of ground-living mammals have vanished. Where dingoes remain abundant, the rate of local disappearance is 10 per cent or less. In addition, to Johnson's research, there is some evidence that predators are the key to maintaining balance. One of these is the absence of rabbits on Kangaroo Island. High populations of goannas simply ate th rabbit to extinction when it was introduced. Likewise, the Tasmanian Devil is believed to have kept the fox out of Tasmania and kept cat populations low. This has resulted in Tasmania only losing one marsupial, the Tasmanian Tiger, since colonisation.

Below are the various species in Australia that are subjected to culling and controlling (often in the name of environmentalism) but other agendas are perhaps at play.

Kangaroos

Arguably, Japanese whaling inflames people in the way Nowegian whaling doesn't because it is based on a lie that it is being done for science. Perhaps a similar form of deception is what most inflames people about kangaroo culling. To make culling more palatable to the community, it is often argued that it is being done out of compassion for the kangaroos that would otherwise die of starvation. Just like killing whales for science is a lie, so is killing kangaroos for compassion. When left alone, kangaroo mothers simply reduce milk production. Babies in the pouch die and embryos are not born. In short, they control their own populations with less suffering than that is inflicted by bullets.

Some aspects of culling are also potentially damaging to the species. For example, the big males are usually shot first because they try to attract the attention of the predator. By shooting them, the shooters target the strongest individuals of the mob during their prime breeding age.

There are some legitimate non-environmental reasons for killing kangaroos. For example, kangaroos can cause damage to crops and fences, and also become hazards on roads. In addition, kangaroo meat and leather are commercial products.

saltwater crocodile

Sharks and Crocodiles

Australia is a hot country and many Australians want to be able to take swim without the risk of being eaten by a crocodile or shark. In response to these desires, in 2013, the Western Australian government announced a cull of sharks that came close to popular beaches. Meanwhile, residents in the Northern Territory asked for a cull of crocodiles in their billabongs.

The cullings are rational in the sense that a reduction of sharks and crocodiles reduces the risk to swimmers, even if it doesn’t eliminate the risk entirely. The cullings are irrational in the sense that the risk of being taken by a shark or crocodile is extremely low. In regards to sharks, Australians are twice as likely to die after being struck by lighting, 300 times more likely to to drown and 3,000 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident.

Essentially, the question could be framed as a value judgment about whether the death of 1,000 sharks and crocodiles would be justified if one human life could be saved by it. Some would say yes and some would say no.

Wekka

The wekka, also known as the bush hen, is a native to New Zealand that was introduced to Macquarie Island in the 1870s. Sailors liked them because of their feisty bold personality traits that made them easy to catch and turn into a meal.

It was believed that on Macquarie Island, the wekka contributed to Macquarie Island parakeet going extinct. Even if it did, a century after its arrival, the wekka had formed a balance with the local ecosystem and posed no threat to any other species. Nevertheless, a decision was made to kill them all. Because the wekka posed no threat to any species, the decision to eradicate was not based on science.

Rabbits invading Australia

Rabbits

In 1859, a farmer introduced 24 grey rabbits to remind him of home. At the time, the man wrote:

"The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."

By 1900, the rabbits had reached plague proportions and were causing extreme environmental damage. In farming areas that had had most predators removed, the rabbits ring-barked trees, ate fields to oblivion and caused massive soil erosion by digging burrows. In areas like Kangaroo Island; however, they were eaten to extinction by goannas.

Due to the economic risk posed by rabbits, the CSIRO developed the myxomatosis virus. When it was first introduced in the 1950s, the virus killed up to 99 per cent of rabbits without infecting any other species.

Myxomatosis was a godsend for farmers, but a short-lived one. In less than 50 years, the kill rate had dropped to 50 per cent and today most rabbits are immune.

While the virus was great for farmers, argubly it indirectly pushed many small native marsupials to the brink of extintion. When rabbit numbers are high, they constitute almost 100% of the diets of cats and foxes and are a signifcant part of the diet of quolls, dingoes, goannas and eagles. When rabbit numbers rapidly plummet with each viral outbreak, predators seek out alternative animals, such as lizards, bilbies, wallabies, to hunt. With large numbers of predators hunting only small populations of prey, the prey stand little chance of survival. With prey hunted to extinction, predator numbers drop. Ironically, fast breeding rabbits then repopulate an ecosystem with few predators.

Today, many environmentalists have just been conditioned that rabbits should be killed on sight for environmental reasons. Consequently, rabbits are targeted with warren ripping and poisoning. Meanwhile, in areas that are left alone, rabbits have formed a balance with predators and basically do little harm - as the original pioneer conceived.

Camels

It is estimated that around 750,000 camels live in the outback where they compete with livestock on privately owned stations. At the present, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient market demand to make mustering and slaughtering the camels a viable activity.

Because most of the camels are on private land, movements to kill them are chiefly driven by economic agendas. Some private companies have been lobbying the government to provide them with additional funding to reduce (but not eliminate) camel numbers. This would suggest the culling company is conceiving of government-funded culling as a sustainable industry and doesn't want to harm the industry by killing them all.

Complicating the culling are some Aboriginal groups that look upon the camel as a sacred animal. It seems that an oral tradition records the camel coming with well respected Christian missionaries and they are valued for that reason. These groups don’t want the camels to be killed. It has been estimated that 40 per cent of the camel population is on Aboriginal land.

 

Koalas

Koala's seem like an unlikely target for control considering it is an Australian native; however, it did not exist on Kangaroo Island at the time of European colonisation and therefore it has been defined as a feral on the island. As a feral, some environmentalists want to kill it.

Koalas were introduced to Kangaroo Island in the 1930s. By the 1990s, their populations had reached almost 14,000. Although they were the jewl in the Kangaroo Island's ecotourism crown, some scientists believed they had no right to be on the island. According to David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide, there was a hierarchy of animals rights on Kangaroo Island, and the koalas' rights were close to the bottom. In his own words:

"You are going to cause major problems for other species -- other species that are endemic to the island. Those things have a right, a greater right, to be here than koalas."

As a compromise between the environmental scientists that wanted to kill them and the tourism operators that wanted to conserve them, between 1997 and 2005, the South Australian government paid for the sterilisation of 3,400 adult koalas and relocated a further 1,000 to the mainland. Each sterilisation cost around $140. Needless to say, the remaining koalas kept breeding and environmental scientists kept asking for more money to manage the koala problem and run public "education campaigns" about the problem. For whatever reason, the government then decided there wasn't a problem and ceased funding. Mysteriously, the koalas then developed a disease which dropped their populations by half.

 

Feral Cat

Cats

In North America, the feral cat poses no threat to the native ecosystem because predation from the coyote has kept it confined to urban areas. In Australia, the feral cat inhabits the entire continent from the snowy highlands to the arid interior and is pushing Australian birds, reptiles and marsupials towards extinction. It is only in Tasmania (where the devil controls it like a coyote) where the Cat is not a huge ecological threat

On mainland Australia, significant money has been spent on cat eradication programs. The use of 1080 is a favoured method. 1080 is a synthetically produced substance that is a replication of a naturally occurring poison found in plant species such as poison bush, kite leaf poison bush, poison pea, and wallflower poison bush. Although native animals can eat the foliage, seeds and flowers of the plants with no ill effect, it is deadly on the feral animals that have not evolved alongside it.

Despite the impressive science behind it, it is very expensive, and for a country of 7,600,000 square kilometres, it has zero chance of eradicating non-native animals. It simply can't overcome the vacuum effect. Once cats are removed from a region, more simply migrate in. Using it just slows the process of an ecosystem reaching a sustainable balance with the change.

There are also large areas of Australia where poisoning can not be used. These areas include farming land, urban communities and any area when poison bush doesn’t occur naturally. Farmers don't want local cat populations eradicated because to do so would result in plague populations of rabbits and mice.

On islands, cats have been eradicated but the eradications have also revealed some of the negative consequences of their removal. Perhaps the best example of this is the various methods to control cats and rabbits on Macquarie Island, a 34km by 5km island halfway between Australia and Antarctica. Cats and rabbits were introduced in 1860s to provide food if sailors were shipwrecked.  Overtime, the two species formed a balance with each other. That balance was interrupted in the 1950s when the myxomatosis virus was introduced to control rabbits. Each time a virus outbreak decimated rabbit populations, the cats started hunting native birds. In the 1990s, scientists gained $500,000 in funding to eliminate a population of only around 500 cats that had been on the island for almost a century and a half. When the final cat was removed in 2000, rabbit numbers were somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000. Within 6 years, the population had reached 130,000 and Macquarie Island's vegetation was being eaten to extinction.

 

(Left. Macquarie Island before the removal of cats. Right, after the removal.)

In 2011, $26,000,000 was spent trying to remedy the disaster. The first stage of the plan involved releasing another virus, the rabbit calicivirus, which had an average kill rate of around 90%. The second stage involved using helicopters to drop 307 tonnes of baits for the rabbits that survived the virus. This was around 3 tonnes of bait for every square kilometre. The third stage involved hunters and dogs searching the island for the next seven years with burrow bombs, and poisons to kill any rats or rabbits that survived the virus and baits.

On an island, there is a small hope that the feral can be eliminated and thus justify the massive collateral damage caused. On the mainland, the feral can not be eliminated because more will always migrate in. Funding is therefore the sole motivation for the control program. The cost is the environment.

 

 

Invasive ferals

Carp

Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

Rabbits
A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Bushfire
Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

 

 

       

Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012