Scientists say pandemic could have torpedoed decade of Kimberley rubber vine eradication | Ralph-Lauren

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Scientists have described their race against time to save one of the Kimberley’s most important river systems from an invasive species notorious for devastating northern ecosystems.

Rubber vine — which kills native flora and fauna, creating a monoculture wherever it takes hold — has identified throughout Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Particularly deadly to cattle, scientists have run sophisticated eradication programs for the past decade in a bid to keep rivers in the Kimberley region safe.

The tracking program involves a mapping system, remote cameras and specialised eradication teams.

Already a monumental task, it has been further complicated when a previously undetected infestation cropped up near one of the East Kimberley’s most significant waterways during the middle of the pandemic last year.

A man squats down to hack at the roots of a tree with secateurs.
Volunteer John Szymanski cutting down a well-established rubber vine plant in the Fitzroy Valley.(ABC News: Erin Parke)

The race begins

The environmentally disastrous weed was identified by an aerial survey near Lake Argyle, about 25 kilometres south-west of its last known site.

Scientists knew the eradication was an immediate high priority, but they were hamstrung by COVID-related travel restrictions and WA’s hard border, which shut them off to their teams of experts in the Northern Territory.

Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attraction coordinator David Chemello said the seriousness of the situation was immediate.

“They don’t stop, and to miss a year would be absolutely detrimental to this program, and set us back another 10 years or so.”

Government departments and biosecurity agencies were tasked with kicking the program into gear, as the threat of the pandemic torpedoing their carefully managed eradication efforts loomed.

Close up on a flower growing on a rubber vine.
Rubber vine growing in the pastoral regions.(ABC Rural: Matt Brann)

“One of the biggest issues is a lot of the contractors that are used for this program come across from the Northern Territory,” Mr Chemello said.

“We’ve got a group of guys over there — Territory Weed Management — that have been involved in this project for a long time.

“We had to get them across the border, which was one of the biggest hiccups for the project.

“It was certainly touch and go there.”

Into the database

It took scientists, conservationists and volunteers several weeks to get the infestation under control, and now it will be entered into the program’s system as a site that will need ongoing management.

“This was a significant outlier, 25 kilometres south, so it was a setback to the project,” Mr Chemello said.

Scientists are monitoring a number of sites around northern Australia for the weed, with infestations also under control in the Fitzroy River catchment area.



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