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Foxes Invade Tasmania, Create "Environmental Emergency"

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
August 22, 2006
 
The recent discovery of a fox carcass in Australia's state of Tasmania
has prompted government officials to warn of a "national environmental
emergency."

Scientists and officials fear the common red fox was born in Tasmania, indicating that the species has established a foothold on the island, located off the southern coast of mainland Australia (map of Australia).

Once established, foxes could wipe out more than 70 species native to the island, which is renowned for its large tracts of pristine wilderness.

The threatened animals include birds such as the ground parrot and eastern quoll and marsupials such as the Eastern barred bandicoot and Tasmanian devil.

"Tasmania is a virtual Noah's Ark of rare and endangered species, many of which are extinct or nearing extinction on mainland Australia," said Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens political party. He lives on a small rural property on the island's north side.

"There should ... be no stone left unturned finding and imprisoning the criminals who are responsible for foxes being brought into Tasmania."

(Related: "Eco-Terrorism Blamed for Tasmania Red Fox Release" [January 30, 2003].)

Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries and Water estimates that 78 native vertebrate species could be at risk if the fox became established on the island.

Even better-established animals—such as ducks, blue tongue lizards, mountain dragons, skinks, frogs, little penguins, and platypuses—may be threatened.

Farmers are also concerned.

On mainland Australia, foxes kill between 10 and 30 percent of lambs, leading the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association to estimate local lamb and wool industries could lose millions of dollars (Australian) a year.

And tourism representatives have said that visitor numbers could drop off if foxes cause a decline in the state's reputation as a unique wildlife environment.

Fox Hunt

Nick Mooney, a wildlife officer with Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries and Water, told one local radio station that it was possible the fox could have been born on the island.

"It's a long way away from ports of entry ... It's years past our reports of the original introductions. In fact, it'd have to be a doddering old-timer with a Zimmer frame [walker] to have made it that long," he said.

"It's very hard to avoid confronting that, yes, it's a fox that was bred here."

The recently discovered carcass, found on a road in the island's North Midlands area, is the fourth reported since 2001.

It had previously been believed there were no foxes on Tasmania.

The 2001 find prompted the creation of the Fox Free Taskforce, which had spent several years investigating whether or not foxes were infiltrating the island.

In June of this year a national research body, the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center, confirmed the presence of foxes on the island.

Federal and state governments are now promising millions of dollars in funding to try and identify how the foxes came to the island and how to get rid of them.

The Fox Free Taskforce has now been reestablished, and the Tasmanian State Government is calling for volunteers from recreation, environment, and farming groups to immediately report any sightings of foxes.

"The community really has to make up its mind where it wants to go on this," Mooney said. "Does it want to slip into the style of [the Australian state of] Victoria and end up spending millions every year controlling impacts of foxes, or does it want to keep Tasmania special?

"If you were a landscape gardener and you wanted to make fox country, this is it. It has got wetland, it's got dry forest full of rabbits, bettongs, bandicoots, and there's lots of roadkill and sheep farming."

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