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Australia steps up its fight against RIFA (red imported fire ant) with the help of additional government funding.

In July, the deputy prime minister and minister for agriculture and water resources, Barnaby Joyce, announced a new joint federal/state funding arrangement for the eradication of the red imported fire ant in Queensland, amounting to $411m on an indexed basis over the next 10 years. This is effectively a doubling of the annual budget, from $19m to $38m.

The new funding arrangement follows recent criticism of the existing program. An independent review of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program found there was “only a small window of opportunity left” to eradicate them. Experts, including Invasive Species Council chief executive Andrew Cox, believe that Queensland authorities would lose the fight unless more money was allocated to the program. The expansion of the program is timely given very recent detections of colonies at Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast and Lowood in the Lockyer Valley.

The red imported fire ant (RIFA) was first detected at the port of Brisbane in 2001, with subsequent outbreaks in other locations around Brisbane and also in Gladstone. Since 2001, close to $350m has been spent trying to eradicate RIFA. In 2014, a single nest was detected at the port of Sydney and eradicated. Most incursions are detected following the movement of containers into Australian ports from the southern USA (usually Texas or Florida) and from Argentina.

RIFA is native to South America and was first detected in the USA in 1940. Since then, it has spread to at least 13 southern states. The aim of eradication in the USA was abandoned long ago and today some US$7b is spent every year just trying to limit its impact on people, agriculture and the environment. In Australia, the economic cost of not eradicating RIFA has been estimated anywhere up to $45b per year.

The eradication program in Brisbane relies on a range of activities to detect and eliminate colonies, which include remote sensing, sniffer dogs trained to detect fire ants, visual surveillance and community engagement programs. Detected nests are treated immediately by nest injection with fipronil and then a wide perimeter is treated with baits containing an insect growth regulator (IGR).

These IGR products are key to the success of the program as they impact the reproductive potential of RIFA queens. Previously infested areas are treated in a program of bait applications over a two-year period before eradication is declared. Unfortunately, despite stringent movement control, the movement of soil, plants and machinery back into these areas can lead to re-infestation and the program must start again.

Sumitomo Chemical Australia is the major supplier of IGR-based baits for the eradication program, having extensive experience with both RIFA and a number of other invasive ant programs around the world. With production based in Queensland, close to where it’s needed, bait production schedules are very responsive to the needs of the program and can be adjusted quickly to deliver fresh bait as soon as new outbreaks are detected.