Beneath those shrubs around your bin and dotted across the picturesque rolling plains of your imagined outback, is evidence of a war being waged against a subversive and mysterious enemy. As a nation we trap, poison, gas and shoot these ‘shadows’ in the millions and yet they persevere. Welcome to Feral Australia. Home to the largest wild population of dromedary camels, one of the only populations of Banteng (an endangered Indonesian buffalo), and tens of millions of donkeys, horses, goats, cattle, deer, pigs, foxes, dogs, cats, rabbits, hares, rats and mice. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry describes these animals as “introduced animals...[that] have established large and widespread populations in Australia”.
However problems arise when you begin labelling animals as ‘pest’ or ‘introduced’ species. Branding animals in this way opens the door to potential eradication and control programs. These programs are always approved by ethics committees who have stringent concerns for welfare, but unfortunately these plans are not always reconstructed in reality. It seems every couple of years a cull of ‘feral’ animals appears on television, evoking a public outcry with images of carcasses strewn across the landscape. Most culls of large animals in recent years have been conducted as aerial culls, combining helicopters, high powered rifles and marksmen that eradicate most members of a nominated species in a nominated space in an attempt to ‘control’ the population.
Conversely it has been accepted by the federal government and most state governments that eradication of most feral species is impossible, with programs focussing on ‘control’ being the only option. I agree that the numbers of any species must remain within a certain threshold in order to maintain biodiversity. However control methods and what exactly ‘control’ stipulates are matters for discussion. As the writer Tom Robbins once said, “stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach”.
Feral animals are a problem for Australia. What is classed as a pest to the government may have inherent and significant value to non-government entities. The last study on the feral goat population in Australia was conducted in 1996 and estimated at 2.6 million and costs the economy an estimated $25 million. These numbers have obviously increased (probably substantially) since this study. However the feral goat population also fuels cashmere and live export trade that exploits the feral population, worth $30 million. Although the real impact of feral goats in Australia is impossible to calculate, there are some who are obviously benefitting by having this ‘additional’ resource. Another example of the synergistic nature of humans/pest animals is feral pig hunting in North Queensland. This is a very common pastime, which exists to control numbers but which, as a ‘sport’, also has a vested interest to have pigs remain in order to continue. This interconnectedness of feral pigs and humans is replicated in a number of situations across Australia.
I think the time has come when we stop talking about eradication, elimination and control. I believe many introduced species such as the dingo have, or are in the process of being, integrated into the ecosystem. I agree that certain species must be prevented from entering new territory if possible and biological control/sterilisation options may be viable if they limit numbers without reducing welfare. However we have to start thinking of these animals as part of the environment rather than an unfortunate consequence of settlement. If we start treating these species as animals rather than pests, we may be able to develop systems to incorporate their role in an ecosystem as well as ensure the current populations of native species are not diminished. I believe the number of introduced species can be controlled. I believe biodiversity is still possible even with primary predation. And I believe native animals must be protected. But we have to accept facts, Feral Australia exists.