Tasmania's fox hunt is a wild goose chase, say sceptics
It is costing tens of millions of dollars, but a campaign to exterminate foxes in Tasmania has become enveloped in a cloud of slander, intrigue and conspiracy theories.
The government of the Australian island state is convinced a population of European red foxes has been introduced to the island, either by accident on container ships or deliberately in an act of malicious eco-terrorism.
Unlike mainland Australia, Tasmania has until now remained fox-free and has the country's healthiest populations of small marsupials - exactly the kind of prey favoured by the rapacious predators.
But the alleged foxes have proved maddeningly elusive and the Apple Isle is divided as to whether they are in Tasmania at all. Sceptics say there are no foxes in Tasmania.
They are convinced the few carcasses that have been found were smuggled in from neighbouring Victoria, a ferry ride away, as part of an elaborate hoax.
Doubters believe some shooters are so resentful of Tasmania's strict hunting controls that they have launched a murky 'bio-sabotage' plot to publicly humiliate the national parks and wildlife service.
There is even suspicion that some evidence, such as fox scat, may have been planted by rangers to justify the generous A$56 million (HK$357 million) which the state and federal governments will spend on fox eradication over the next decade.
'Their evidence is so flimsy,' said David Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist who has reviewed the wildlife department's findings. 'There's so much potential for fabrication, concoction and hoaxing. I was able to logically demolish, in every instance, the claim that these animals are established in the wild. The parks and wildlife department is on a dwindling budget and it is in their interests to inflate the threat.'
Mr Obendorf has offered a A$1,000 reward for anyone who can produce a dead fox with sufficient evidence to prove that it died, or was killed, in Tasmania. Two other sceptics have offered rewards of the same amount.
A Tasmanian member of parliament, Ivan Dean, said the evidence produced for the presence of foxes was 'either spurious or found in suspicious circumstances'.
The mood of doubt among Tasmanians is fuelled by the lingering debate over whether the island's dank rainforests may still harbour a remnant population of Tasmanian tigers or thylacines.
Each year there are claimed sightings of the striped marsupial wolf, even though scientists have declared the species extinct.
Only four fox carcasses have been found since 2001, and scepticsw say at least three were planted either as a prank or as a way of discrediting the authorities.
Nevertheless, the fox eradication taskforce believes there are about 400 wild foxes roaming Tasmania. But its officers concede they have yet to find a den, a litter of cubs or a pregnant vixen. Last year they laid 10,000 kangaroo-meat baits laced with poison. This year the number will increase to 50,000.
Not one poisoned fox has been discovered, although the head of the taskforce, Alan Johnston, said that was not surprising.
'They go into their den or a hollow log to die. We don't expect to find oodles of dead foxes lying around all over the place.'
Tasmania's many recreational hunters argue that they spend thousands of hours stalking through the bush each year, so it is odd they are not seeing foxes.
Mr Johnston rejects that argument. 'At low population densities the possibility of seeing a fox is very small. We're aware of the scepticism and it's very frustrating. It's very demoralising for my staff, who genuinely believe they are doing something of great value for the state. There's no doubt that foxes are here.'
The debate over whether foxes are present on the island has become rancorous. 'It's a live issue in our letters pages and on our website,' said Gary Burnie, editor of the Hobart Mercury.
'Everyone hopes that foxes are not here but we have to make absolutely sure.'
The taskforce believes the fox population is small but growing rapidly and that unless exterminated, there will be hundreds of thousands of them within decades.
If that happens, they would drive to extinction many of Tasmania's rare marsupials and wreak havoc on sheep farms, attacking new-born lambs.
'If we get to the point where people are seeing foxes all the time, then the game will be up,' said Mr Johnston.
'We have to act before we get to that stage.'