Australia's hidden $25 billion a year extinction crisis

  • Lifestyles could be severely impacted by invasive pests by 2050

  • Feral animals could drive the extinction of more native species

  • Technology must be fast-tracked to combat the problem

  • Environment minister says invasive species a 'major threat' to wildlife

Cats, toads, pigs, rabbits, bugs and weeds are plaguing Australia, costing the country a staggering $25 billion a year.

Between 1960 and 2017 the price of tackling invasive species is estimated to have been $390 billion, with the financial impact increasing six-fold every decade, the authors of a new CSIRO report concluded.

Things are set to worsen thanks to the effects of climate change which is resulting in weather conditions which favour ferals, while native species struggle to adapt.

An aerial image of feral pigs running through a watery landscape.
Invasive species like pigs (pictured) pose a major threat to Australia's ecosystems. Source: Getty

Severe bushfires create pathways for weeds to spread, while floods can amplify the spread of pests like carp and cane toads.

CSIRO scientist Dr Andy Sheppard told Yahoo News the "public-facing" report was released following COP26 to remind Australians about the impact of invasive species.

"Invasive species are the number one driver of biodiversity loss in Australia, climate change isn't yet, but it probably will be some time in the future" he said.

"We wanted to make sure that we could counter balance all of the thinking around climate change."

Extinctions from invasive species set to increase

Invasive species have already contributed to 79 species being wiped out across Australia, with rabbits and cats being the most destructive vertebrates.

A new wave of losses could follow as extreme weather and invasive animals like buffalo and wild pigs decimate vulnerable ecosystems.

There are already 2700 types of weeds established across the country, but evening more frightening is that the numbers are growing by 20 new species a year.

A chart showing the increasing cost of tackling invasive species once they become widespread.
This chart shows the increasing cost of tackling invasive species once they become widespread. Source: Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Victoria.

Offering a road map for tackling the problem, Dr Sheppard said that prevention would be “much cheaper and more effective” than trying to combat pests once established.

“Urgent, decisive, coordinated action is crucial to stopping the spread of invasive species and to protect our extraordinary, irreplaceable native animals and plants. Australia has a great track record in this space,” he said.

Environment minister deems invasive species 'major threat'

Environment Minister Sussan Ley told Yahoo News she agrees that invasive animal and plant species are "among the major threats to native species".

She said her department is working with communities to develop cat traps, creating wildlife safe havens, and supporting weed eradication and pest control activities, particularly in bushfire affected areas.

"Feral pests and predators are a key focus of both our threatened species and our $200 million bushfire recovery strategies," she said.

Minister Ley added that they have supported pest eradication across 3 million hectares in areas impacted by fire, on top of 16.9 million hectares targeted through the Regional Land Partnerships program.

"A further $29.1 million was included in this year’s budget to protect native species from the threats posed by invasive pest animals and weeds in our native environment," Minister Ley added.

Our everyday lives are at risk from invasive species

Tourism is just one sector that is posing a growing risk to Australia’s ecosystems and farms, creating a need to “shore up national biosecurity measures” in order to “limit potential damage”.

Online retailing is also adding to the problem, bringing unwanted problems via items like plants and cut flowers.

The thousands of shipping containers arriving at the country’s ports each year also bring with them biosecurity threats including stink bugs, diseases and contaminated soil.

A “sliding doors moment” is what the nation now faces according to the report, with farms, outdoor recreation, travel and trade all to be severely impacted by 2050 if more isn’t done to combat pests.

Future technologies set to play a role in eradicating pests

It's believed technology will form a significant role in combatting invasive species.

Satellites will detect the presence and impact pest animals, plants and diseases in real time, resulting in a “quick and focused” response.

Genetic biocontrol measures including causing the offspring of a feral animal to all be one sex will be another available option.

This technology has already been used to tackle invasive European carp, but in the future it could be used to threaten populations of feral cats, foxes, toads and mice.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will also increasingly become an important component in the war on pests, with robots guided by data from drones and sensors likely to be pulling out weeds on the farms of future.

The report's authors argue these technologies should be fast-tracked in order to "eradicate and control" pests.

They would like to see government wipe out the top level invasive predators in the next 30 years, in line with measures announced by New Zealand.

How everyday Aussies can help fight the invasive species problem

While these high-tech mechanisms are developed, the CSIRO say there are simple measures everyday Aussies can do to help, according to report co-author Andreas Glanznig.

“From suburban backyards to science labs, everyone can play a role in pest and weed prevention and control,” he said.

These involve declaring all items when travelling across international or domestic borders, keeping cats inside and growing native species in your garden.

“Together we can work to drive down Australia’s native species extinction rate – currently over four species a decade — towards net zero extinctions,” Mr Glanzig said.

“Education and public awareness programs are needed so we can enlist millions of Australians to help find and eradicate invasive species before they get a foothold.”

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