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
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
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
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
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.