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13 July 2007

Toad Warriors


HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The untamed beauty of the Kimberley is one of Western Australia's major attractions, but its unspoilt waterways and fragile fauna are facing an unwelcome visitor - the cane toad. Toads have been found less than 70km away in the Northern Territory and moving west. A campaign to stop the toad's advance is in full swing, and those involved say it could disrupt the ecological balance in WA's north.

DENNIS BEROS, STOP THE TOAD FOUNDATION: People have made up their mind that they don't want this invasive species. Perhaps we don't need to have this invasive species, and doing everything that we can to keep it out now is a far better thing than counting the cost at some later time.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: This is one of the hopeful new recruits in the West's attempt to keep the toads at bay. Kimber, a month-old dingo pup, is about to begin its training as a sniffer dog to detect toads.

SARAH FYFFE, DOG TRAINER: The purebred species is under threat. There's not a lot of hope for them if people don't step in, and I just want to change people's opinions, so that when they hear the word 'dingo' they don't think Azaria, they don't think vicious attacks, they think it's a wonderful animal and a treasure to our country. Good girl, well done. I'm actually now teaching her to step back from the toad when she finds it, rather than sit right next to it, just for her safety as well.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Sarah Fyffe is a professional dog trainer who sees the potential to use purebred dingoes to sniff out cane toads and, in the process, rehabilitate the image of an animal once regarded as a pest.

SARAH FYFFE: Good baby! You're a good girl!

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: So far three dingoes, including this 3-month-old, have been taught to sniff out cane toads which Sarah Fyffe imports frozen from Queensland. She says purebred dingoes have an edge over domestic breeds traditionally used in Customs work.

SARAH FYFFE: As humans, we haven't altered them, so all of their senses are still really alert and really, really powerful. With, say, the beagle, over the years we've refined them so their sense of smell is heightened. So, in effect, their hearing and their sight has lowered. With a dingo, all of those senses are completely awake and finetuned.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Training the dingoes hasn't come without its problems. Aside from raising two small children, Sarah Fyffe has also worn the cost of importing the toads into WA and then there's dealing with the dingo's unique personality.

SARAH FYFFE: They're very, very soft. A lot of people think they're a hard dog, but they're not. They are very, very soft-hearted and their spirits are broken very easily.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The dingo project hasn't received backing from the State Government, which is spending millions to try to stop the march of the toad. But once the dingoes are trialled in the Kimberley and in the NT in the coming months, the results will be scrutinised.

DR WINSTON KAY, WA DEPT OF ENVIRONMENT AND CONSERVATION: At this stage, it's quite a new idea, I guess, to train a wild species like a dingo for this sort of role, so we'll just wait to see how successful, I guess, that training program is and we're not even sure at this stage whether or not a detection dog can be trained effectively to detect a single species like a cane toad.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But it will take more than dingoes or sniffer dogs to keep the toads at bay. Dr Winston Kay is in charge of the State's cane toad initiative.

DR WINSTON KAY: We do recognise that it is a long shot. Cane toads are a very successful invasive species that have been in Australia for a long time. We're just doing the best we can to try and slow or prevent their entry into Western Australia.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The westward movement of toads in the last wet season alarmed those preparing WA's response.

DR WINSTON KAY: There was limited surveillance done prior to the onset of this most recent wet season, but based on known populations, we estimate they've moved at least 90km further west over the course of the wet season, which is a quite a rapid movement for an animal of that size.

ADVERTISEMENT: WA is facing an alien invasion. This quiet creature, alien to Australia - the cane toad.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The State Government has pushed a public awareness campaign to alert people to the threat. It has also created the Stop the Toad Foundation which says preventing the toad's entry into WA is of national importance.

DENNIS BEROS: Really, the Kimberley is the only part of northern Australia now not infested with cane toads, so there's both an enormous threat there and a great opportunity, too. It would be great to keep it that way if we can and that's what we're all about - having a go to try and keep them away.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: For her part, Sarah Fyffe is keen to put her dingoes to work as soon as possible to try and stop the march of the cane toad into the Kimberley.

SARAH FYFFE: In my situation, I'm no scientist, I can't come up with a biological control, but I can train these guys to help hold back that front line and if they're worth five or six people out in the fields where the toads are, to find them and put a stop to them, then that's helping out in my way.