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Tasmania Declares War on Red Foxes - If It Can Find Any

Tasmanian authorities are intensifying their war against a potentially destructive foe - the European red fox. Officials in the southern Australian state believe their numbers are increasing and are spending up to $50 million to eradicate the foxes. Skeptics, though, think hoaxers may have brought fox carcasses to the island to scare the government. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

No one knows how many foxes there are - if any - in Tasmania. The official estimate is between 50 and 200. The state government thinks some of these destructive hunters made it to Australia's southernmost state as stowaways on ships from the mainland or were brought in by smugglers.

Environmentalists say it would be a disaster if foxes became established on the island. Small mammals, ground-nesting birds and some native rodents could be decimated.

To counter the threat a special taskforce has been set up, part of a 10-year plan to wipe out Tasmania's fox population.

Nick Mooney from the Fox Eradication Branch is convinced there are large groups of foxes in Tasmania. "We have 14 items of hard evidence. These vary from road kills - we've had three road kills - to about seven scats (droppings) identified by DNA picked up and another animal shot and some footprints. So we've got a fair scattering of hard evidence and we've got well over a thousand sighting reports - that's eye witness accounts, if you like," he said.

Skeptics, however, call the evidence "flimsy" and say that there is no concrete proof that pregnant vixens or fox cubs are present in Tasmania.

The doubters say pranksters may have created a panic in Tasmania by bringing in dead foxes to create the illusion that foxes are now living on the island.

David Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist in Tasmania, believes the size of the fox population has been wildly exaggerated. "The road kills and finding of biological fox material is fraught with problems because of the numbers of hoaxes and set-ups that have occurred that bring in fox carcasses and fox material from (the) Victorian mainland where foxes are highly prevalent," he said.

Both sides in this argument agree though that foxes could inflict untold damage on the island's unique wildlife.

Vulnerable indigenous species, including the flightless Tasmanian native hen and bettongs, which are small nocturnal marsupials, would be at particular risk.

Tasmanians do have good reason to cast a worried look north toward the mainland.

Experts say there are 30 million foxes across the Australian continent. They were introduced by European settlers and are thought to have played a major part in the extinction of at least 23 native species.