Biocontrol no magic bullet for wild dogs

18 Mar, 2015 07:56 AM
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Studies have assessed public sentiment around a genetically manipulated biological control approach

EFFECTIVE biocontrol of wild dogs can be ruled out as a current option for farmers, due to delivery obstacles and welfare concerns.

The National Wild Dog Action Plan (NWDAP) implementation steering committee sought advice from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in 2014, regarding available biological control agents that could be used in the fight against wild dogs.

But according to NWDAP implementation steering committee chair Duncan Fraser, the CSIRO advised that biocontrol is no magic bullet in tackling wild dog predation.

“The CSIRO feedback indicates that there are no magic solutions to managing wild dogs. This reinforces the need to organise strategic regional cross-tenure wild dog management efforts to ensure long-term wild dog control,” Mr Fraser said.

No biocontrol agents in the pipeline

The science organisation also advised Mr Fraser that no broadscale wild dog biocontrol agents are currently in use.

According to Kurt Zuelke, director biosecurity flagship at the CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory, there are no biocontrol agents available, “or, to our knowledge, under development”.

“Viral vectored immuno-contraception (VVIC) was explored for foxes using a dog herpes virus by the CSIRO several years ago. A dog virus which would have affected wild dogs and dingoes and domestic dogs was chosen as there was no fox-specific virus available.

“The VVIC approach is based on genetic manipulation of viruses to carry other agents and has not been explored directly for dogs. It is technically challenging and even if successful in a research situation, there is no guarantee of acceptance by government regulators (or the Australian public) for use in the field.”

Mr Zuelke said none of the VVIC vaccines investigated to date have transmitted effectively, making it likely a dog VVIC would need to be delivered via a bait to each individual animal.

“As such, a poison would be more economic in the short term,” he said. “Also, pre-existing immunity will likely be an issue for any VVIC approaches, as the vectors used would already be circulating in wild dog populations. At the same time, a suitable vaccine or means of protection for domestic dogs (and dingoes/wild dogs in some places) would be required”.

“There is an international fund managed by Found Animals in the United States, and the Michelson Prize Awards scheme to develop new humane methods to control dog and cat fertility that includes approaches like VVIC in its scope, but the only products so far are direct chemical injectables.”

A question of social licence

A biocontrol option often raised by wild dog control stakeholders - Canine parvovirus - is unlikely to be feasible, according to Mr Zuelke.

“Pre-existing immunity to common diseases like parvovirus and paramyxovirus (distemper) already exists in feral populations and often there are reduced effects on adults.”

He said lethal biological control would most likely not be supported in Australia largely on the basis of animal welfare concerns, but also due to difficulty in managing delivery to feral and not to domestic dogs.

“Studies have assessed public sentiment around a genetically manipulated biological control approach for feral animal control, but the results have not indicated acceptability is likely.

“The question is often asked why, if we have effectively controlled rabbits using biological control, we cannot do the same for other feral animals?

“In the case of rabbits, Australia has been extremely lucky to have two new emerging extremely pathogenic diseases that were already present in Australia. Most importantly – both are transmitted by insects (fleas and mosquitoes for Myxoma virus, flies for Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus, RHDV). This enables spread between non-connected populations, which is one of the main reasons why rabbit biocontrol has been so successful,” Mr Zuelke said.

“In addition, RHDV still kills rabbits so fast that it causes less suffering than some of the approved conventional control methods – which make it more acceptable from a welfare point of view. Rabbit calicivirus has set the bar very high for any other candidate on this very controversial subject, and while this does not necessarily mean there will be no new biocontrol agents, it is likely that very few agents will be deemed suitable following a very rigorous assessment.”

Increase in alternative controls

The NWDAP provides an important forum to discuss strategic solutions to the nation’s wild dog problem, and the communication of wins in the wild dog control battle is seeding ideas across Australia.

In a recent trial, Riverina Local Land Services (LLS) monitored Wi-Fi transmitters on two pest animal traps located on a travelling stock reserve at Coolamon, NSW.

The trial was made possible after Goldenfields Water County Council (GWCC) added to its innovative Wi-Fi network, developed for remote water metering across the region. The technology proved a great support in preserving time and resources.

In another NSW project, a listening device which sends alerts to a mobile when wild dogs are near could give farmers the opportunity to thwart an attack.

Having already developed facial recognition technology to monitor the movements of wild dogs, Dr Greg Falzon is now developing a device which alerts farmers' mobile phones when wild dogs approach the area.

Dr Falzon, a computational science expert at the University of New England, Armidale, was awarded a Science and Innovation Award for Young People in Agriculture grant, supported by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), to pursue his research.

Work on ‘The Electronic Shepherd’ is already underway. Within a year he will have developed a device with advanced computer software that can identify the sound of wild dogs, sudden stock movements and extensive bleating indicating attacks.

For more information on the National Wild Dog Action Plan, go to the NWDAP website.

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