A feral or wild pig in a remote area of Cape York, far north Queensland

Assessing the damage being caused by feral pigs in remote areas of Cape York.

Know thy enemy: researching the impact of wild pigs

CSIRO scientists are working with Indigenous communities on Cape York Peninsula to set up long term biodiversity monitoring plots to assess damage caused by wild pigs to the environment. (8:13)

  • 1 February 2013

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Read more about Invasive species in the rangelands and savannas.


Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROvod, I’m Glen Paul.  In this vodcast I invite you to join me in far north Queensland, as we travel with a team of CSIRO scientists who are working with local Rangers to assess the damage being caused by feral pigs to some remote areas of Cape York.

It can be rough going working in this part of the world, and overseeing the expedition is Justin Perry from CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences.  The scientists had come to the Toolka Nature Reserve, not far from the township of Coen, to work with local rangers in establishing a five year baseline survey aimed at finding out how the reduction of feral pigs in the region would impact biodiversity.

Feral animals have long established themselves in this part of Australia with remnants of cattle stations, such as wild horses and mobs of cleanskin cattle roaming the bush, and while they certainly do impact the native landscape, it’s the feral pig that is considered the biggest pest.

Brought to Australia as domestic pigs at the time of European settlement, feral pigs are now a widespread problem.

Justin Perry: So it’s going to be a really interesting project, and the beauty of it is that it informs the management of pigs right across northern Australia.

Glen Paul: In preparation for any future pig abatement program, survey sites are established so numbers of native species can be measured before and after.  With some animals more active at night, conducting a species count after dark allows a good insight into potential impacts of pigs.

Eric Vanderduys: This that we’re looking at in front of me here (demonstrating) is old pig damage.  When I say old, it’s last wet season when this was still wet, and they’ve been poking through the mud with their snouts and trotters, and getting in and looking for probably bulbs of whatever this veg is, it’s probably bulkuruor some sort of sedge, that they like to eat the peanuts or the onions of.

Glen Paul: Despite the pig damage of the last wet reptile expert and author of the Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland, Eric was pleasantly surprised to see some frog species in abundance.

Eric Vanderduys: You can sort of see how thick the frogs are.  Just come in and have a look at this, just to give you an idea.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13 – that’s a striped rocket frog, that one up there, a different one to all these others – 14.  Yeah, frogs everywhere.   

Glen Paul: But counting species you can see will only get you so far, as many are just too shy or well concealed, so live traps are placed at survey sites to allow the researchers to catch and document what’s there.

Gen Perkins: I think he’s a melomys, so he’s not a rat at all, but he’s like a nat... what we call a native rat.

Glen Paul: Once the details are recorded animals are then released.  The selection of a suitable survey site is also an important factor.

Justin Perry: The start of the site we put a picket, we walk a hundred metres on one of the points of a compass, north, south, east or west, and we run a hundred metre transect out.  So that we can find them again we put pink tape on, so a feature of fauna surveys across northern Australia is pink tape, and you’ll see... if you ever see this floating around in rainforests or savannah, you know that there’s some crazy Scientist walking around in there.

Glen Paul: The researchers are also interested in knowing how many pigs are in the area, and by clearing a site of prints and markings, any new activity can be noted.

Justin Perry: And what we’ve found is we’re starting to see evidence of pigs.  That’s only after two days.  Usually we’re going to leave these things for about a week, and what we do now is we measure right across the ten metre transect and that gives us an idea of how many pigs are still utilising this area.

Glen Paul: A non venomous slaty-grey snake had been captured the night before, and Justin was preparing to release it back to the spot it was caught, and with the Rangers continuing the surveys in the future it was a good opportunity to practice handling. 

The team had been working this area for a couple of weeks and were due to head to a new campsite in the mountains, so needed to complete one more survey across each site before packing up.  One thing that was obvious was the use of technology, with a lot of it being Smartphones and tablets.

Justin Perry: Two years ago we carried probably ten different pelican cases, and in those pelican cases we had large things to pack into a Ute, we had GPS’s, we had satellite phones, we had paper maps that we printed out, we had all these different things that are now embedded in one device.  And so now we go, “Alright we’re going to go pack.”  (Chuckles).  (Justin closes the case on his Smartphone and puts it in his pocket).  Put it in your pocket and you’re done.

Glen Paul: And the advances in technology didn’t end there.  Time lapse cameras were installed at some of the sites to monitor the comings and goings of animals.  And an unmanned airborne vehicle could offer a view from above that previously would have required the use of a helicopter. 

At a nearby waterhole a Cormorant had got itself into trouble and appeared to be snagged on something.  Properly trained, and if safe to do so, CSIRO Scientists will always lend a hand to wildlife in distress.

Justin Perry: I think this has been... this Cormorant’s been diving for fish, and there’s some line set in here for whatever they’re catching in here, and it’s got its neck caught around there, so it’s got a... I can’t quite actually see... Shaka, can you just see where that... you can see where that joins on, and it goes down to its neck, but I...

Ranger Shaka: I think it’s...

Justin Perry: It’s OK.  There you go.

Ranger Shaka: There you go.

Justin Perry: Alright.

Ranger Shaka: Right.  Here, here, here.  I’m out. 

Justin Perry: Alright.  Go.

Ranger Shaka: A thank you would be nice.

Justin Perry: (Laughs).

Glen Paul: With surveys for the Toolka Nature Reserve out of the way the team packed up camp and along with the Rangers began the trek to the new site.

Anders Zimny: We’re heading towards this place called Blue Mountain, and yeah, it’s always exciting to come to a new place that you don’t know what it looks like, and where we’re going to set up camp, and if there’s going to be a creek you can swim in after hard work (chuckles), and so, yeah, it’s always exciting.

Glen Paul: An old outstation would make for the campsite, and as the Scientists hadn’t been here before, Shaka offered a traditional welcome.  Basically the greeting offered safe passage and good fortune to the Scientists while working on land. 

The new site was littered with rusting corrugated iron, and knowing how much certain animals enjoy the shelter it offers, the team was keen to investigate.

Unknown Male: That is a ripper.  That’s one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.

Glen Paul: In this situation the scientists were focusing more on reptiles, so the uncovering of a large tarantula was somewhat unexpected. 

Justin Perry: How are we going to get it back without crushing it?

Eric Vanderduys: I’m just figuring that out now.  Right, start laying it down now, she’s at a good spot now. 

Glen Paul: With the spider safely covered over it was time for the real work to begin.  New survey sites would have to be selected, and traps and bait prepared.  Working with Indigenous communities to set up long term biodiversity monitoring plots is extremely important for conservation in northern Australia, and if you’d like to find out more about this type of research, or look at a career with CSIRO, just visit our website at www.csiro.au.