Soldiers learning the art of jungle warfare at a Queensland training facility are also battling with another unsuspecting enemy: feral pigs. The Australian Army’s Combat Training Centre in Tully, near Mission Beach, sees around 700 soldiers a year train across more than 13,000 hectares of tropical terrain, but reports of rising feral pig populations carrying a dangerous disease have local landholders worried.
The Department of Defence has spent more than $250,000 on feral pig management throughout the Tully training area, including trapping and contracting out shooting activities. However, banana farmers and pig hunters have also had to take up the fight following a confirmed outbreak of the dreaded Panama tropical race 4 (TR4) disease.
First detected in the Tully Valley in March 2015, the disease is carried by pigs and affects the growth of the banana plant. Stephen Lowe, from the Australian Banana Growers’ Council, said TR4 affects the banana tree, not the fruit itself. “It enters the plant’s root system and restricts its uptake of water, stopping it from producing harvestable bunches and eventually killing it,” he said. “So the message right now is, the best way people can continue to support the banana industry is to keep buying bananas.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Dale Last, who also represents the Tully area, described TR4 as a “devastating disease that has the potential to wipe out the banana industry”. “To put that into perspective, this is a $600 million industry that provides 95 per cent of the bananas sold in Australia, which equates to 393,000 tonnes a year,” he told Queensland Parliament in August.
Mr Last pointed to the “ad hoc approach to feral pig control” as a concern, saying the 18 traps laid by the local council and trapping information sent to landholders is not enough. “As members would appreciate, feral pigs can easily travel 20 to 30 kilometres in a single night and the risk they pose to farmers in terms of spreading TR4 disease is substantial,” he said. “There needs to be a coordinated and sustained effort to eradicate feral pigs from this area and the government needs to take a lead role in organising and managing this program. This is a task beyond the capacity of local pig hunters and a few banana growers.”
In response, Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne has gone on the record to remind landholders that they can access Category D firearms for feral animal removal. He said the government has committed $24 million to protecting the banana industry since TR4 was detected, but did raise concerns about how feral pigs were being managed on Defence land. Under Queensland’s Land Protection Act, landowners are responsible for keeping their land free from feral pigs and other pest animals.
A Defence spokesperson pointed to their pig trapping programs, which have been underway since the early 1990s, as proof of their efforts in controlling feral pig populations. “Defence has been working with communities and the Queensland Government since 2015 and attending Panama Regional Working Group workshops is part of this engagement,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, SSAA Queensland’s Conservation & Wildlife Management branch is actively involved in pest control and wildlife management across more than 60 properties, including on state, conservation group and privately owned lands. The group train at the Stewartdale property, which is home to the largest state-funded koala habitat restoration project ever undertaken in Queensland.
SSAA Qld CWM head Damien Ferguson said the group was actively looking for new members to join its ranks to help with activities. “Pest animals do enormous damage to our environment, native animals and livestock, and the work CWM does in keeping them under control is part of the solution,” he said. “We’re looking for reliable, level-headed, self-reliant, motivated people who can think for themselves but also work well in a group too.”
CWM members operate in groups, often in remote locations and need to be self-sufficient, bringing their own shelter, food, water, firearms, ammunition, first-aid kit, navigation equipment and sundries with them. Up-to-date technology including drones, thermal and night-vision equipment are also part of the toolbox, further ensuring efficiency and positive results. “It’s a great way to use your shooting and hunting abilities to benefit our country, and likely learn some new skills yourself too,” said Damien.