Fire ants could become Australia's worst pest, experts warn

A red fire ant crawls across sand Image copyright Biosecurity Queensland
Image caption Time is running out to eradicate the red imported fire ant, experts say

Red fire ants could wreak more damage in Australia than feral rabbits, cane toads and foxes combined, experts have warned in a new report.

Originally from South America, the red imported fire ant is feared for its burning and potentially lethal sting.

If not eradicated, it is estimated the insect could trigger up to 3,000 anaphylactic reactions in Australia each year.

An independent review called for urgent action before it spread nationwide.

The analysis of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program recommended spending A$380m (£225m; $284m) over 10 years to stop the ant's rapid march, the ABC reported.

Red ant colonies entered Australia through the Port of Brisbane in 2001. Since then, they have flourished in south-east Queensland and are now estimated to be within 50km (30 miles) of the New South Wales border.

Image caption Experts fear the ant could spread from Queensland to New South Wales

The aggressive insect is known to bite humans and livestock en masse. Its venomous sting can cause blistered spots or even trigger a deadly allergic reaction.

In the United States, more than 80 deaths have been attributed to the species.

Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox said unless Australia ramped up its eradication programme, it could suffer a damage bill worth billions of dollars.

"Fire ants will be a massive hit to our economy, our environment, our healthcare system and our outdoor lifestyle if we do not act now," he said in a statement.

"Eradication is still possible and in our nation's interest but the time to act is rapidly diminishing."

The species could become more damaging than any other feral animal, he said.

Image copyright Biosecurity Queensland

State and federal authorities have faced criticism for not doing more to control the outbreak.

A spokesman for federal Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce said $328m had already been spent on eradication efforts. Further investment would be considered at the next ministers' meeting in May.

"The Agricultural Ministers' Forum has agreed with the findings of independent review that eradication remains technically feasible, cost-beneficial and in the national interest," he said in a statement to the BBC.

Which is the most notorious ant species on earth?

More on this story