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23 Dec, 2017 06:10

Faux poo? $36mn eradication program which found no foxes in Tasmania deemed a success

Faux poo? $36mn eradication program which found no foxes in Tasmania deemed a success

A costly Tasmanian fox eradication program, which dragged on for over a decade but failed to find live specimens, has been cleared of accusations of planting fox poop to falsify the presence of the animals and secure funding.

The new report was issued by Tasmania’s anti-corruption Integrity Commission on Monday, concluding a lengthy investigation into the activities of the Fox Free Taskforce (FFT) and the Fox Eradication Program (FEP). The eradication programs ran from 2002 to 2014, spent over AUS$40 million (over US$36.7 million), but failed to find any live specimens in Tasmania, drawing numerous accusations of planting evidence to keep the funds flowing.

“While there were administrative and management issues, they were not indicative of misconduct,” the report reads, confirming the results of an earlier police investigation which also failed to find any criminality.

Red foxes have been trying to set their paws on Tasmania’s soil since their introduction to Australia in the 1830s, but have so far failed to do so. The most recent Tasmanian fox scare started in the beginning of the 2000s amid reports of local hunters importing a number of cubs, raising them and releasing them into the wild to roam free and be hunted.

A police investigation, launched in 2001, proved the reports to be “hearsay and gossip.” Rumors of their presence, however, became the cornerstone of a decade-long large-scale baiting and eradication program, since foxes establishing themselves in Tasmania would endanger indigenous species.

Over the years, fox eradicators managed to uncover four dead foxes, one fox skull, a blood sample, a sets of fox footprints, and 61 “fox-DNA positive scats.” Another set of footprints was documented back in 1998 ahead of the great fox scare. Tasmanian foxes proved to be elusive – or possibly nonexistent – since the team did not find, capture, or even film a single live specimen in more than 10 years.

While the Integrity Commission report highlighted mishandling of evidence and other oddities which plagued the eradication programs over the years, the evidence was deemed inconclusive to prove any wrongdoing on the team’s part.

Some of the fox corpses appeared to be road kill. One fox carcass, which a local hunter claimed to have shot with a shotgun, somehow contained no projectile fragments. At least one of the four foxes presented as evidence was likely a hoax, but the commission could not prove the eradication team was involved in it.

The most fruitful part of the hunt – the uncovering of droppings – has also raised many questions. The imported fox feces, used to train scat dogs, went missing on several occasions, “carried away by birds” or becoming “liquefied” in the environment. The commission did not rule out that some of the training samples could have been later collected as “evidence.” At least one of the researchers might have “fabricated or falsified evidence by placing fox scat into the landscape. However the strength of the available evidence is not sufficient to make a conclusive finding on this issue,” the report states.

The collected droppings might have been mishandled and contaminated during laboratory tests, the report states, citing eyewitnesses. On at least one occasion, an eyewitness observed the collected droppings simply piled up in the laboratory without any casings, which would inevitably lead to their intermixture and contamination.
Following the closure of the program, a new feces-hunt dubbed ‘The Great Poo Hunt 2014’ was conducted by the Invasive Species Branch of the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. However, it failed to recover any waste produced by foxes.

The department, which used to run the programs, praised the report for “its clear findings that there is no direct evidence to support the allegations of misconduct,” acknowledging the comments on the “practices that impacted on these programs” and promising to improve the management of similar programs in the future. It, however, implied that the eradication program was a success, stating that the “rightful focus” of these programs was not to actually find any foxes, but instead to ensure that a “fox population did not establish.”