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Living Lightly column

The hard problem of introduced species: rejecting the call to violence

By Mike Fuery

Every year our attention is drawn to the ongoing degradation of our wilderness ecosystems, and statements apportioning blame to the presence of ‘invasive,’ ‘feral’ or ‘pest’ animals. These pejorative terms do nothing to help us solve the underlying problem and conveniently side-step the reason for them being where they shouldn’t: our species put them there. And let’s not forget that Homo sapiens is currently the major cause of global warming and a contributor to the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

Our cultural story has become one where introduced animals are somehow inherently evil for existing and doing what they do. Used for decades, existing ‘management programs’ invariably involve shooting or poisoning but suppress only a small, localised population for a short time, until their reproductive capabilities ensure their numbers rebound to previous levels. The irony is that the carcasses of shot animals left in situ can then become carrion for other introduced species and provide them with a survival advantage; those poisoned and left can go on to poison other threatened native animals that feed on them.

This is hardly an environmentally sound strategy. In order to visualise long-term approaches to mitigate the harm they cause, we need to change the way we talk and think about them and abandon violence as a solution when, from the outset, it was never a question.

So, what solutions are available showing positive results and what should warrant more urgent funding for research and development?

Immunocontraception has shown great promise in its ability to painlessly sterilize animals in order to disrupt the reproductive cycle. While currently only injectable, the drug could be administered automatically as an aerosol at distributed feeding stations, inhaled by the animal being targeted. Despite negative publicity, artificial intelligence has been used in a ground-breaking approach using organic communication to inform species to relocate. It has had impressive success in South Australia with one native species is being adapted to target other species in the near future. While poorly understood by many, rigidly-regulated genetic engineering may provide another tool where edited proteins can halt the reproductive cycle with great precision in target species.

Instead of capitulating to violence, let’s use our intelligence and technology to provide lasting environmental solutions while maintaining compassion for all species.