Indigenous concerns about invasive species

Feral Herald |

Author and biologist Tim Low was one of the Invasive Species Council’s co-founders 20 years ago. He wrote and published some of the earliest issues of Feral Heralds, and brings us another story in this edition.

A stand-out feature of the recent Australian 2021 State of the Environment report was the strong input of Indigenous authors. Most chapters had Indigenous co-authors, and there was an Indigenous chapter for the first time ever, outlining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander notions of Country (or Ailan Kastom) and the barriers to better caring for Country.

The cover of the 2021 State of the Environment Report was an artwork called We All Share Water by Gertie Huddleston of the Wandarang/Mara peoples.

Some academics have claimed that Indigenous people welcome introduced species and do not want them controlled. British geographer Charles Warren asserted recently that ‘Australian Aboriginal people regard many introduced species as valuable and “belonging” … and New Zealand’s “Predator Free 2050” campaign conflicts with Maori cultural beliefs.’

Australian anthropologist David Trigger posed a question: ‘If ‘Indigenous Australians’ make intellectual room for non-native species, recognizing their capacity to achieve a place in the environment and the nation, does this confound (or at the least complicate) scientific or eco-nationalist messages that position introduced species as “alien”?’

Australian sociologist Adrian Franklin went much further by celebrating feral animals in his 2006 book Animal Nation. ‘We should not be merely surprised by Aboriginal people’s largely positive view of feral animals’, he wrote, ‘we should also be inspired and perhaps a little ashamed.’ His chapter on this topic ends with a plea: ‘Rather, without in any way altering our concern for native animals, we might finally concede that the ferals are as Australian as we are, that we all, after a while, belong to country.’

Buffel grass is widely used by the pasture industry but has devastating impacts on the environment. Photo by Don Driscoll.

The Indigenous chapter of the 2021 State of the Environment Report can’t be reconciled with these comments. The very first paragraph about biodiversity is clear that ‘Biodiversity and the health of Country has been impacted by invasive species and climate change, which threaten the number of native species and the health of the land.’ This chapter mentions cane toads killing reptiles, buffel grass claiming large areas of the Northern Territory where it interferes with fire practices and sacred sites, and feral pigs, buffalo and weeds threatening Kakadu’s wetlands. This chapter had as its lead authors Wuthathi woman Terri Janke and Barkandji woman Zena Cumpston.

Franklin claimed that camels, donkeys and horses ‘do not present themselves as pests to Aboriginal people’, but the Indigenous chapter says feral camels are ‘threatening waterholes and cultural landscapes across the deserts’.

The three academics I cited believe that concerns about invasive species are overstated and coloured by prejudice against that which is foreign. Franklin backed his claims about Indigenous people by quoting from a 1995 report produced for the Central Land Council by Bruce Rose, a biologist who interviewed hundreds of people in central Australia. Rose wrote this:

‘The effects of feral animals on the country are not seen as a cause for concern. It is seen as a natural phenomenon that animals eat the grass and raise a bit of dust. To separate the impact of feral animals from native species on these grounds is not seen as logical. People see the contemporary ecosystem as an integrated whole so they don’t see some species as belonging while others do not.’

Much has changed in the Outback since Rose conducted his interviews almost 30 years ago. Camels have exploded in numbers, alarming people by despoiling sacred waterholes and drinking them dry. Thirsty camels have entered desert townships in their desperation for water, damaging houses, toilets, taps, air conditioners, solar panels, pipes, troughs and tanks. In 2019, the hottest year yet in the centre, two springs west of Alice Springs, Ilpilli and Kumulpa, had desperate camels dying on top of each other and Anangu Luritjiku Rangers had the ‘horrible job’ of removing rotting carcasses from the spring areas with a bobcat, then burning them on pyres. In the Tanami Desert the Central Land Council, working with shooters from the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission, organised an emergency cull of feral cattle, horses, camels and donkeys near Lajamanu to defend springs there. The following year, for the first time ever, a cull of more than 5,000 camels was organised on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of South Australia, to stop thirsty camels damaging infrastructure and polluting waterholes.

Feral camels are exploding in number across the Australian Outback, destroying Country and culture in the process.

Anthropologist Petronella Vaarzon-Morel and biologist Glenn Edwards have written about Dreaming Law or Jukurrpa which states that animals can be killed for eating but not for nothing, but that said, plans to sell camel meat have come to little, because wild camels are remote from abattoirs and ports. ‘This situation is forcing people to articulate their fundamental values in relation to indigenous and introduced animals’, they wrote. ‘Increasingly, many are concluding that camels do not belong.’

Beliefs within any group vary, and the situation in Central Australia today is that some communities want camels culled and others are holding back. Rose learned that some people were unhappy about camels in the 1990s, and the invasion curve – by which opinions about introduced species can change dramatically as numbers rise and damage increases – means those concerns are much greater today. (The same shift is evident in coastal NSW towns in which newly arriving deer are appreciated until numbers rise and problems emerge.)

Buffel grass and its destructive fires have also increased in Central Australia, and Indigenous communities are siding with environmentalists who want it stopped rather than with pastoralists who want more plantings for cattle.

The Australian 2021 State of the Environment shows that Indigenous communities have deep concerns about invasive species based on ever-increasing damage to Country. Academics who have been arguing otherwise should revisit the evidence.

More information:


  • Franklin A, (2006) Animal Nation: The True Story of Animals and Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press
  • Janke T, Cumpston Z, Hill R, Woodward E, Harkness P, von Gavel S & Morrison J (2021). Australia state of the environment 2021: Indigenous, independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, DOI: 10.26194/3JDV-NH67.
  • Rose B, (1995): Land Management Issues: Attitudes and Perceptions Amongst Aboriginal people of Central Australia. Central Land Council Cross Cultural Land Management Project.
  • Trigger D (2008) Indigeneity, ferality, and what ‘belongs’ in the Australian bush: Aboriginal responses to ‘introduced’ animals and plants in a settler-descendant society. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14 (3): 628–646.
  • Vaarzon-Morel P, and Edwards G (2012) Incorporating Aboriginal people’s perceptions of introduced animals in resource management: insights from the feral camel project. Ecological Management & Restoration 13(1): 65–71

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
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