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19 March 2012
Australia should consider actively conducting a large-scale project where populations of native apex predators – the dingo and the Tasmanian devil –are allowed to recolonise habitats where they once occurred as a way of restoring fragile ecosystems, a Deakin University ecology expert has argued.
In an opinion piece published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, last month, Dr Euan Ritchie and international colleagues* from a number of universities argue that apex predators such as the dingo and Tasmanian devil can help ecosystems buffer against or ameliorate significant environmental challenges, including biological invasion, disease transmission and climate change.
"I acknowledge this is a pretty radical argument and there are some negative effects that must be addressed but we believe it is something land managers need to consider, desperate times need bold measures," Dr Ritchie said.
Dr Ritchie said Australian ecosystems have become fragile and degraded and had a low ability to respond to challenges mainly due to the loss of native species, the functions they fulfilled, the loss of biodiversity, the invasion of pests and the consequent changes this wreaked on habitat.
"In the Australian tropics alone, more than 20 native species of mammal might face extinction over the next few decades owing to inappropriate fire regimes, livestock grazing and predation by feral cats," he said.
"The recent introduction of the red fox into Tasmania and the decline of the native apex predator the Tasmanian devil is predicted to cause extinction of many species formerly abundant on mainland Australia and Tasmania.
"We would argue that this grave situation justifies seriously considering management programs where apex predators are reintroduced or allowed to recolonise habitats where they once occurred."
Dr Ritchie said recent evidence suggested that the reintroduction of dingoes would produce a cascade of benefits by limiting native and introduced herbivores (e.g. kangaroos and goats) and exotic predators, namely foxes and cats.
"This would also have a profound flow on effect for other smaller species and vegetation," he said.
Dr Ritchie acknowledged some livestock producers would have concerns about the potential impact of the predators on their stock.
"But, we believe that livestock guardian animals present a viable option for protecting stock against these apex predators, they may also help deter smaller predators like cats and foxes.
Dr Ritchie also cautioned that apex predators could in some circumstances increase the risk to threatened or endangered prey species, particularly those living in habitats already degraded by humans," he said.
"In areas where the risk to threatened species is too great it would be worth considering management that simulates the apex predators' effects on the local habitat," he said.
Euan G. Ritchie, Bodil Elmhagen, Alistair S. Glen, Mike Letnic, Gilbert Ludwig and Robbie A. McDonald, Ecosystem restoration with teeth: what role for predators? Trends in Ecology and Evolution
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Predators such as the Dingo should be allowed to play a role in restoring fragile ecosystems. Photo courtesy of Australian-wildlife.com.
Dr Euan Ritchie