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Tourists to blame for 'unprecedented' poo problem in Aussie bushland

Human waste is problematic on both a human health and an environmental level, says ranger Olivia Hickey.

There's a problem on the rise in the Aussie wilderness, and rangers, including Olivia Hickey, are kicking up a stink about it.

As a ranger for Tasmania Parks and Wildlife, Hickey says she's noticed an "unprecedented" amount of human poo in wilderness areas throughout the state because bushwalkers simply "don't know how to toilet" while outdoors in "very fragile alpine ecosystems".

She and her colleagues find faeces near rivers, lakes, streams, and campsites and even next to toilets. It's not experienced bushwalkers though who already "know what to do and where to toilet", Hickey told Yahoo News Australia. She suggests it's those who are new to bushwalking and visitors to Tassie — and there's "lots of proof".

Bushwalkers in the Tasmanian wilderness.
Visitors to remote Tasmania are encouraged to educate themselves before visiting, with a major poo problem emerging in the wilderness. Source: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife

"As a wilderness ranger, we transport a lot of poo that we find while out and about," the Tassie ranger told Yahoo News Australia. "We have to pick it up and have to deal with it by carrying it to the toilet. So there are a lot of people clearly doing the wrong thing. [People] are just pooing straight on the ground and that's become a much more obvious problem.

"Covid actually made a lot of people want to go out and explore kind of their backyards, and nature is a fantastic spot to be in. But they've just missed the education of how to look after their waste properly."

How to dispose of waste properly

When you gotta go, you gotta go, which is "normal", says Hickey. But the problem now is there are a lot more people bushwalking who "don't know how to do it". For many years, bushwalkers have been encouraged to bury their poop in a hole at least 15 centimetres deep — and away from water and campsites. This often requires people to carry a hiking shovel.

Left: Human waste and toilet paper on grass. Right: human hand holding poo pot.
Rather than going to the toilet straight on the ground, people are encouraged to carry their waste in a pot or jar until they find a toilet. Source: Olivia Hickey

This approach is still encouraged however only in areas "that have got lots of soil" — so you need to know where to dig. "It breaks down very quickly and that's been the go for bushwalkers for years," said the ranger.

Specifically designed products including poo pots and poo tubes — sealable containers for transporting human waste from sensitive wilderness areas back to toilets — are another option. But Hickey says a simple Google search before venturing outdoors will offer lots of different ways to carry the waste.

"You could use a peanut butter jar or something that's fully compostable like a cornstarch bag,' she suggested. "You can put that on the ground and poo into the bag itself, and then put that in the pot and then carry it to the next toilet".

Problematic on both 'environmental and human' level

The dumping of human waste is problematic on both a human health and an environmental level. "From a human perspective, there are now lots of places in Tassie I wouldn't drink the water from because [the poo] brings all kinds of viruses and bacteria into the water. It can cause all sorts of belly upsets," Hickey said.

 Walls of Jerusalem National Park in Tasmania, Australia
Experienced bushwalkers 'know how to toilet' says Ranger Olivia Hickey, but new walkers do not. Source: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife

But the environmental level is a "massive concern". Human poo can "kill the plants or make it more available for other weed species to come in" essentially ruining the natural landscape.

"A lot of Tassie's wilderness is a world heritage area and has seen unchanged landscapes for a very long time," Hickey said. "So that human impact will have a long-lasting impact on the environments that we're in."

The ranger said it's up to bushwalkers to be aware of their surroundings and to educate themselves before heading out. Part of being in the wilderness means not having signage or technology. "It's nice to be able to just get away from all signs and all technology," she said.

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