We’ve only got one chance. And for the sake of all Australians, we must all make sure we succeed.

Feral Herald |

Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox reflects on a recent visit to the red fire ant eradiation program HQ and the first ever outbreak of the highly invasive ants on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island).

“How did these killer tiny ants cross the water?” That was my first thought when I received the call that red fire ants had made it to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), off the coast near Brisbane Queensland.

If you are not familiar with it, Minjerribah is a place of incredible cultural significance, a sanctuary that has been cared for by its owners and custodians, the Quandamooka People, for thousands of years. These high cultural values, along with its impressive conservation values – two nationally threatened peatland fish, six threatened plant species, its perched and water table window freshwater lakes and littoral rainforest – meant that the Quandamooka’s pursuit of World Heritage listing was entirely warranted. Minjerribah’s wetlands, foreshore swamps and interconnecting land are also listed as part of the Moreton Bay Ramsar site.

So you can appreciate my concern during this call. I knew that the Red Fire Ant Program was at risk due to a lack of funding. To find out exactly what was going on I headed to Queensland, with Richard Swain, our Indigenous ambassador.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a call like this. Red fire ants were first detected in Brisbane’s suburbs and the Port of Brisbane in 2021, and subsequent outbreaks occurred in Gladstone, Port Botany and Perth. Since then the ants have been eradicated or are well on the path to eradication in all places except one. Brisbane was the largest outbreak and has been the hardest. A National Red Fire Ant Eradication program has been in place for well over 20 years to stop these tiny killers from taking over their backyards, farms, parks and environment.

Thankfully, despite many setbacks these efforts are largely working, and the treatment regime and biosecurity measures in place have slowed the spread and started to remove ants from many areas. It’s an incredibly complex undertaking across hundreds of suburbs over an area of 6,000 km2 , or roughly twice the size of the ACT. In 2017, thanks to a concerted two-year campaign run by the Invasive Species Council, federal, state and territory governments made a ten-year, $411M commitment to eradicate the red fire ants when the program was close to being abandoned.

Andrew and Richard out front of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program headquarters (left) and Andrew looking at an ant sample in the lab (right).

It’s well worth the effort and money. CSIRO’s ant expert Dr Ben Hoffman says red fire ants are ‘one of the world’s worst invasive species. For a very good reason’. They swarm in their thousands and kill people, small pets and livestock. They can wipe out entire native ecosystems and turn bustling grasslands and forests silent. They do this by rapidly overwhelming an animal (or human) when disturbed, and stinging in unison. Their coordinated attack overwhelms the nervous system of the victim and can cause anaphylactic shock.

Six years after the injection of new funds, what’s troubling is the results of an independent review of the program. It found that while eradication is still technically feasible, success success may only be possible with changes to the program and a major boost to funding.

The Brisbane outbreak has proved difficult as it’s a highly populated area and with three years of rains and flooding it’s been hard to stop the fire ants spread. These tiny killer ants are smart, highly organised and work in social super colonies. They hitch rides in pot plants, on trucks carrying soil and building waste, and even in cars. To ensure we stop the spread and completely eradicate them, we need to give this all we’ve got, as soon as we can.

Currently, the ants are on the move making their way westward, ever closer toward the Murray Darling Basin watershed, while to the south they’re in parts of the Gold Coast, as close as 12 km from the NSW border. And thanks to human assisted movement, they have just crossed the ocean passage to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island).

Richard Swain arriving on Minjerribah (left), beautiful scenery on the island (centre) and chatting with Jacob from the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (right).

When we arrived at Minjerribah, we were met by the staff of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation. They were an impressive, highly organised group. They shared their hard won success protecting the island’s shorebirds from foxes, having eliminated foxes from most of the island except near the townships where baiting is not possible. They had been turning their efforts to the small population of feral cats, when they got the news in late January: red fire ant nests had been found on the island in a former sand mining site undergoing rehabilitation.

While we still don’t know how they got there, genomic testing done at the time has shown the colonies are unrelated, meaning they are unlikely to have arrived by themselves and most likely spread from the import of contaminated material. We left Minjerribah with a heavy heart, but high hope, confident that the Quandamooka people will handle this in the same competent way they have dealt with the feral animals, working under the auspices of the eradication program and properly funded to play their role.

Richard and Jacob on a mine site (left) and Andrew with a red fire ant reporting sign (right).

The next day, we met the head of the eradication program, Lance Perry, and operations manager, Graeme Dudgeon at the Berrinba headquarters of the red fire ant program that also served as one of the depots for their ground eradication teams. The scale of the operation was apparent. We toured the building and spoke to many of the staff.

I’ve got to hand it to them, they are doing such a difficult job across such a vast area. What was obvious was the deep care these red fire ant experts had for protecting the Brisbane community and nature from these ants.

I recalled the warnings from those I met on my red fire ant tour to the United States in 2016, a place where fire ants are out of control across the entire southern US. They told me, “If we could go back in time, we’d do it differently. We’d give it everything we’ve got.”.

I felt the weight of the world. “I’d give up one of our nuclear submarines and spend that cash to defend our country from the current occupation of red fire ants,” I thought. Despite the uncertainty about whether the program will receive the funding it really needs, the program’s team face every day with confidence and intelligence. These people were taking this in their daily stride, preventing a living nightmare from spreading across the country.

Red fire ant treatment zone map (left) and an excellent ad warning people about red fire ants if they are moving soil (right).

So, how does a critical operation like this work? There are two major operations in place. The western portion of the infestation centred on the Lockyer Valley undergoes broadscale treatment. The aim is to lay low-toxicity bait across all the entire treatment areas, regardless of whether nests are visible. Baits can be dropped from the air in remote locations, and by ground teams near homes and built-up areas. The area usually needs to be treated 3 times over two years for successful eradication, after which intensive surveillance identifies areas of remaining ants for spot treatment.

For the areas outside the intensive treatment areas, rapid response teams respond to public calls to treat areas which pose a high risk to people. Each nest identified is treated with an insecticide and the surrounding areas several metres either side receives a prophylactic low-toxicity bait. Turnaround time is much improved from several years ago, now averaging 1-3 days from receiving a report. These areas will ultimately receive the thorough treatment once the westerly portion of the infestation area is successfully dealt with.

Not everything always goes to plan. The weather needs to be just right for the intensive treatment. Too hot is not good, too much rain doesn’t work either.

Andrew attacked by an uncontrolled red fire ant! An active public awareness campaign uses targeted advertising and warnings. They even have a red fire ant suit to capture the attention of the young at heart adding an element of fun knowing that, when battling these heavy issues, a little light humour helps ease the pressure.

The community in the vast fire ant zone in Brisbane’s southern suburbs and areas to the south and west are our real heroes of this program. For more than 20 years many of them have had to put up with movement restriction and property treatments and keep a lookout for the ants. We rely on their support and cooperation for eradication success. From me and the team, I want to give a grateful shout out for their efforts.

A snapshot of the fire ant eradication control centre response map showing the live location of each treatment field team (green and red circles).

The team at the National Red Fire Ant Eradication Program, the Brisbane Community and the Quandamooka people of Minjerribah are doing an outstanding job protecting us from a life long sentence of living with red fire ants.

So after seeing all of this, it was clear that the Invasive Species Council has a big job ahead. We need to urgently secure the funds from the federal, state and territory governments for the expanded eradication program that the expert review called for. To help us achieve this, we have just recruited Brisbane-based Reece Pianta to head up a new fire ant campaign over the coming months. Reece led our successful campaign in 2016 and 2017 that resulted in the ten-year eradication funding.

We are working hard to get federal, state and territory governments to allocate the needed funding for eradication. Now is our chance to prevent this. Not next year or next decade. Together, we need to demonstrate that Australians want governments to allocate the required funding now and stop these deadly infestations before it’s too late.

To support our campaign, you can make a donation to our red fire ant appeal.

Share this post


Other posts

Email Updates

Sign up for our ebulletin the the Feral Herald and regular campaign updates.

Recent Stories


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.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]