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The invasion of the fire ants

The World Today Archive - Thursday, 21 June , 2001 00:00:00
Reporter: Ian Townsend

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Let's go to that story on the fire ant now. Three American scientists are packing their bags today, heading homewards after spending 10 days in Brisbane, Australia - looking at ants.

This morning they issued a final, chilling warning about an introduced pest that they describe as a monster.

The fire ant spreads quickly, its sting kills, it smothers crops and destroys native animals.

And as Ian Townsend reports for The World Today, it could be about to break out of the Brisbane valley and overrun the country.

IAN TOWNSEND: You've probably heard about the fire ant. Someone mowing the lawn noticed unusual ants at the port of Brisbane, four months ago.

Nests have since been found around the city's south and west.

But imagine this. You're at a backyard barbecue in Melbourne or Sydney or Perth or Adelaide, and hundreds of ants swarm all over your legs. You jump, and they all sting you, in unison. That's the fire ant. It could be in your backyard in a few years time. And it can kill.

BART DREES: The individuals that are at highest risk are very elderly people and very young children. The one per cent of the population that's hypersensitive, where one sting can cause anaphylactic shock and death, they're rare but they do happen.

IAN TOWNSEND: Professor Bart Drees has been battling the fire ant in the United States, where the damage bill is a billion US dollars a year.

He's been looking at Brisbane's outbreak, already covering 200 square kilometres, and says disaster looms.

BART DREES: The projections that have been made with computer models indicate that most of the continent will be infested eventually. This is not a Queensland problem, this is not a Brisbane problem. It's really not a neighbourhood by neighbourhood problem. This is really the continent's problem and, really, the southern hemisphere's problem because of the trade occurring in this area.

This is a critical point in time. And decisions need to be made. But once decisions are made, total support and commitment and understanding that this is a serious treatment to a serious infection, if you will, on this part of the continent.

IAN TOWNSEND: The Queensland Department of Primary Industry says it'll cost more than $100 million, over the next five years, to try to crush the ant.

Queensland wants the rest of the country to chip in.

Manager of Plant Health, with the Queensland DPI, Ken Priestly, says the rest of Australia doesn't seem to realise the terrible threat of a fire ant plague.

KEN PRIESTLY: The absolute devastation that this pest can wreak on the environment, the lifestyle and of course agriculture. And I think that message needs to get to the rest of Australia, given that the modelling that's been done indicates that the pest could very well populate by far the majority of the Australian continent.

IAN TOWNSEND: So what happens now? What do you need to do to persuade other states and the federal Government to chip in for this?

KEN PRIESTLY: What we've got is, we've got an assessment that's been made for the National Consultative Committee which has basically outlined the technical feasibility of an eradication program, and put on the table the likely economic viability of such a program.

IAN TOWNSEND: Sounds like a bit of a bureaucratic process though. And you need this to be done as quickly as possible.

KEN PRIESTLY: Certainly do need to be done as quickly as possible. The longer we delay, and the longer a decision is delayed, obviously means the greater the chance the pest has to spread from its existing base. And that obviously increases the cost of eradication.

IAN TOWNSEND: Texas fire ant expert, Bart Drees, agrees. A massive poisoning campaign now, and possibly aerial baiting around Brisbane, might be the only way to stop the ants.

BART DREES: The time element is working against the possibility of succeeding right now. If these decisions, and the support, doesn't come almost immediately so that the Department can tool up for applications that really need to go out this coming Spring, the horse may have bolted already.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Bart Drees is a Professor of Entomology in the State of Texas, in the United States, and a specialist on the American fire ant. He was speaking with Ian Townsend in Brisbane.


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