City 'must get rid of agony ants fast'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 January, 2005, 12:00am

Suspect invaders have to be eradicated before they have time to establish nests, warns expert


Hong Kong may only have a few weeks to wipe out the suspected invasion of red fire ants before the insects take up permanent residence in the New Territories, an expert in invasive species warned yesterday.


'They are just like a cancer,' said Billy Hau Chi-hang, an assistant professor in the University of Hong Kong's department of ecology and biodiversity. 'If you detect it early, you have a chance of getting rid of it. Once it spreads, there is no hope.


'The US has spent countless amounts of money dealing with this species in the past 60 years and they still can't solve the problem. That is why Hong Kong has got to take this seriously.'


He warned that the ants would start breeding rapidly when the weather warmed up and there could be an uncontrollable explosion in their numbers in the spring and summer.


Dr Hau appealed to the government to launch a public awareness campaign and to urge people to report any sightings of mounds that might have been built by the aggressive ants, whose sting can be fatal to people with allergies.


A taskforce of government workers checking rural areas for anthills was not enough to eradicate the problem, he warned. 'We need to start educating the public about this problem,' he said.


'If someone sees a mound they should report it to the government. There aren't many species that make mounds, so if you find one, it is a good sign the ants are there.'


If the insects in question were actually fire ants, they were at 'the most fragile period for the species', Dr Hau said.


'If you can eradicate the species in the first few months the chance of getting rid of them are there,' he said.


Dr Hau said the government had taken the first and most important step by increasing quarantine measures, but said getting the public involved was vital if Hong Kong was to eradicate the ants.


Red fire ants, originally from tropical South America, have been a pest throughout the southern states of the US since the 1940s. Dr Hau said the ants were unlikely to spread to urban areas of Hong Kong and would not present a serious threat to people as they needed bare soil in open countryside to build their colonies.


However, he said the fast-breeding ants did have the potential to spread across the New Territories and presented a threat to agriculture and ecology - eating frogs, lizards and small birds.


They are also likely to attack anyone who accidentally walks over a mound. The ants attack en mass and sting repeatedly, Dr Hau said, delivering up to 12 stings each within about two seconds.


Dr Hau said the ants' stings could be lethal for people with allergies and possibly also for the elderly and young children.