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Stamp out ant trading to keep fragile ecosystems safe

Australia’s bull ants are proving popular as pet ants exported to other countries. Photo: Tasmanian inchman | BJCAM43 | CC BY-SA 4.0

EXPORTING ants from Australia poses a global biohazard risk a new investigation by the Invasive Species Council has found.

International and Australian bio-networks may now face the threat of over 500 species currently obtainable online with highly dangerous and invasive ants available from Europe, Asia, North America.

Invasive Species Council co-founder Tim Low said that the Australian government currently forbids the importation of pets but mishandled illegal mail imports could infiltrate and wreak havoc on entire forests or farms across the country.

“We know animal smuggling goes on, and dangerous ants are easier to smuggle in than the illegal reptiles and tarantulas that are regular arrivals,” he said.

“A queen ant, a few workers, and some brood can easily be carried in a small plastic tube or posted through standard mail.”

A recent study from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found ant traders sold 13 of the 19 worst ant invaders listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Many of these sellers stock the main species Australia is eradicating – the red imported fire ant, electric ant and yellow crazy ant, plus others of grave concern such as the big-headed ant and tropical fire ant.

Australia has already committed $750 million eradicating red fire ants and Queensland continues to spend millions each year battling a plague of yellow crazy ants.

Mr Low said online sellers from Asia present the most troubling risk to Australian ecosystems.

Vendors offer a range of obscure rainforest species and for as little as £25 you can acquire a colony of Asian army ants (Carebara diversa) which can reduce a mouse or a ‘full-grown gecko to a perfect skeleton overnight’.

“it’s just like watching some war scene in a movie, the mouse would be the extreme but certainly people would be doing that with caterpillars to see it get torn to bits,” said Mr Low.

Another digital trader, Ant Keeping Depot in Melbourne proclaims, ‘We love shipping internationally‘  single quote marks

The site warns that deliveries may be subject to customs taxes or duties but does not mention quarantine restrictions other than saying that ants can’t be shipped to the US, Tasmania or Western Australia.

While Melbourne outfit, Queen of Ants assures customers who choose any of its ‘beautiful and unique’ Australian queens that ‘we will ship directly to you, wherever you are in the world!’

“The idea ant trade is going to wipe out a species and put them on the endangered list from simply harvesting ants is realistically not going to happen,” said Mr Low.

“But if the ants were to escape entire species could be wiped out and this is a very real concern.”

But he said that advertising the sale of ants as ’ethically sourced’ does not take into account the biohazard risks posed by such sales.

“You would draw the conclusion that what they’re doing is environmentally sound, that if I’m overseas and I import these Australian ants this is an environmentally reasonable thing to do,” he said.

“And there’s no way that is so, it’s really just appalling.”

Curator of entomology at the University of Texas Alex Wild has spoken out against the reckless export of invasive ant species.

He criticised vendor My Ant for selling tropical fire ants with the advice that the species is neither invasive nor dangerous.

“Granted, the proprietor does note that the ant stings and requires buyers to sign a waiver,” Mr Wild said.

“But seriously, why sell a pest ant at all?”

Mr Low said that the Australian exporters are not operating illegally or dishonestly but are creating a misleading impression as to the risks.

The solution? “Stop the export,” he said.

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Elliot Goodyer

Elliot is a freelance print and radio journalist with a passion for experimental radio fiction, podcasting and international affairs

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