Eco-Terrorism Blamed for Tasmania Red Fox Release

Elizabeth M. Tasker
for National Geographic News
January 30, 2003

Wildlife officers and local citizens on the Australian island state of Tasmania are fighting a desperate battle to eradicate a small number of European red foxes that were illegally released there in 2001.

The fox poses a huge threat to native Australian fauna, having caused the decline and extinction of many native species on mainland Australia. Wildlife managers estimate there may be up to 30 million foxes on the mainland.

The absence of the red fox in Tasmania is the main reason that the island has been something of a Noah's Ark for Australian animals.

But that may be about to change.

"It will be an unmitigated disaster if foxes establish in Tasmania," said Chris Dickman, an associate professor of biology at the University of Sydney. "It's unbelievable that there are people around that hate the Australian environment so much that they'd intentionally introduce foxes there."

Foxes Invade Tasmania

Tasmania is a lush island about the size of Scotland, located off the coast of southeastern Australia. Although settled by Europeans in 1803, much of the island remains a wilderness, and national parks and reserves cover more than a third of its area.

The island state is home to many native animals that occur nowhere else in the world.

"It is the last refuge for many species that used to be widespread, but are now extinct or endangered on the Australian mainland because of foxes, such as the Eastern Quoll and Tasmanian Bettong," said Dickman.

Tasmania has lost only one species of native mammal since European colonization, the Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, a carnivorous marsupial which was hunted to extinction by the mid-1930s. In contrast, mainland Australia has the worst record of mammal extinctions in the world, with 17 species lost in the last 200 years, and many others critically endangered and only just hanging on.

Foxes were first introduced to Australia in the 1850s by wealthy settlers who wanted to hunt them on horseback.

Australia had native predators of its own, but foxes hunt in a different and more cunning way and have a broad and adaptable diet. By the 1930s they had colonized most of the continent.

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