Australia recruits bush detectives for biosecurity

Mon Feb 16, 2009 10:02pm EST
 
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Outdoors-loving Australians are being encouraged to sharpen their sleuthing skills in a bid to save the nation from biosecurity threats such as fruit flies, flying frogs, fevers and the filamentous fungi Fusarium.

The year-long project to recruit community detectives is a joint collaboration by the Australian National University and the Bureau of Rural Science to encourage scientists, gardeners, bushwalkers and retirees to report on threats from the invasion of pests ranging from weeds to feral animals.

"Going by the recent news about dengue fever in Queensland or the entry of equine influenza in 2007, I think that biosecurity is a real and increasing threat in Australia," Jacqueline de Chazal from the Australian National University told Reuters.

"We focus on people who are already reading the landscape, say, farmers, bushwalkers, people who are already volunteers in conservation, and scientists. To date we've had a great response," she added.

Biosecurity is a top issue for Australia, an island nation on high alert for foreign pests that could threaten its multi-billion dollar agricultural and livestock industry.

All food, animal and plant products must be declared to customs, or visitors risk hefty fines, and airports and ports are manned by biosecurity staff and teams of sniffer dogs.

The part-time sleuths are recruited through informal community meetings. These volunteers, who routinely watch out for changes in their fields or backyards, then discuss how best to uncover biosecurity threats in their area.

"The more eyes and ears the better in terms of trying to increase the detection and ultimately increase biosecurity," De Chazal said.

An outbreak of equine flu in Australia in 2007 left the multi-billion racing industry reeling and wiped million in turnover from the major betting firms in 2007.

(Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy)