America’s reality: The Red Imported Fire Ant arrived in Texas in the 1930s, where it costs the state $1 billion per year in treatment and control. In Australia the ant is still being contained under a 14-year eradication program.Picture an Australia where you can no longerkick thefooty around at the oval.
Where you can’t have a family picnic in the park.
An Australia where cane toads, rabbits andfoxesbecome minor pests.
If a 14-year eradication program does not succeed, the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) could become a reality in Australia.
A native of South America, the fire ant is a tiny creature, just 2-6 millimetres in length, but the level of impact it has on industry, social life and agriculture cannot be underestimated.
One fire ant nest holds between200,000 to 400,000 workers, andthere can be up to 400 nests per hectare.
The fire ant isan aggressive, relentless coloniser: when threatened it will swarm andsting repeatedly, triggering painful white pustules across the skin.
Fire ants can work in highly coordinated ‘super colonies’ to take down young livestock,, kill vulnerable animals andconsume crops.
Around 100 human deaths have been attributed to anaphylactic shock from fire ant bitesin the United States since the ant’s arrival in the 1930s –an invasion that coststhe US economy an estimated $7 billion a year.
In 2001, the fire ant was detected in Brisbane for the first time,triggering a quarantine process and the establishment of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication scheme.
Eradication tactics include baits, directly injecting poisons into fire ant mounds, and even sniffer dogs.
The cost of the program, spearheaded by Biosecurity Queensland,is shared betweenthe states and territories and the Commonwealth.Tasmania has contributed $3.7 million to the effort.
Since the 2001 infestation,fire ants have been successfully contained or eradicatedacross south-east Queensland and northern NSW, including Sydney’s Port Botany, Queensland’sPort of Gladstone, and Yarwun, an hour south of Rockhampton.
However, if the ants become a confirmed national pest, the impact on the Australian economy is estimated to be between $8.5to $45 billionover 20 to 70 years.
In December 2014, the Agricultural Ministers’ Forum commissioned an independent review of the $328million fire ant eradication program.
The Independent Review Panel submitted their report this year: in December, The Greens Senator Janet Rice successfully passed a motion to force theclosely-guarded report to table in the Senate.
The panel’s report emphaticallyconcludedthat it was both “technically feasible” andin the “national interest” to eradicate fire ants at a projected 25:1 benefit-cost ratio.
“The Review Panel believes that this stated value actually underestimates the true national benefits from the eradication of RIFA,” the report says.
But there’s a problem: the report states that “the current budget provided to the [south-east Queensland] program is insufficient to achieve eradication”. The window for defeating the fire ant is closing fast.
A treatment and surveillance budget of $38 million a year for up to 10 years would produce a 95 per cent chance of complete eradication of the ant –but the long-term commitment to that funding is still uncertain.
“One of the greatest challenges of this long-term eradication program has been the absence of a secure funding window, which has constrained the south-east Queensland program in the areas of long-term planning, achieving cost efficiencies …and difficulties in retaining specialist staff,” the report says.
Another reportpublished in October by Biosecurity Queensland science manager F. Ross Wylie and principal policy officer Sharon Janssen-Mayasked‘what if we lose the war?’
The answer is bleak.
“In 2016 the programme is at a crossroads,” Wylie and Janssen-May write.
“Red Imported Fire Ant is not just another invasive, it is a ‘super pest’ whose impacts, if unchecked, will surpass the combined effects of many of the pests we currently regard as Australia’s worst invasive animals.”
They note apart from projected agricultural and economic impacts, one of the greatest likely impacts is to human health.
The reactions to a sting can be minor pain through to fatal anaphylactic shock. Most deaths are attributed to just five stings or fewer.
Gardening, walking the dog, bushwalking –if eradication failed, all our daily outdoor activities would be tinged withanxiety.
Different studies have reported that of an entire population living within an infested zone, between 30 to 90 per cent of people will be stung each year.
“This means that were the ant to spread, approximately seven million [Australians] would be stung, and 71,100 may require medical attention for stings each year,” Wylie and Janssen-May conclude.
Biosecurity Queensland reportSolenopsisInvicta.
Invicta is Latin for ‘unconquered’. Perhaps Australia can prove that name wrong.
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