Sun, Oct 03, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Stop fire ant scourge now

The invasion of South American red fire ants is creating a sense of panic all over the country, as the ants rapidly spread from one part of Taiwan to another, reaching even Taipei City. As government officials and experts busy themselves trying to eradicate the problem, one cannot help but wonder: When will Taiwan's government learn to be proactive rather than reactive about imported biological threats to the local ecology and human health?

The reactive mentality of the government is clearly seen not only in the current crisis over the red fire ants, which were believed to have been brought into Taiwan via imported plants, but also in its handling of the SARS outbreak last year. The failure to identify potential foreign biological and health threats has caused the government to be caught off-guard, without any comprehensive plans to deal with such crises. This leads to social unrest and panic as ecological catastrophes and epidemics spiral out of control.

This lack of preparation is especially unforgivable since the nation -- in its heavy reliance on trade -- has long faced the threat of biological invasions. The potential threats have grown significantly over the years, particularly with rapid globalization, the opening up of the "small three links" between Kinmen and Xiamen and the busy traffic between Taiwan, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Only recently has the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine declared that the nation's ecosystem is under severe threat from a list of 10 imported species -- the red fire ants being just one of them.

The most effective way to deal with the problem of imported species is to cut off their introduction into the country. However, that is very difficult in view of the nation's long coastline, which makes a crackdown on illegal trafficking of plants and animals highly challenging, if not impossible.

Aggravating the problem is the selfishness and short-sightedness of many individuals who smuggle in plants and animals that are either not examined at the border or banned from entry to begin with. This kind of mentality was seen during last year's SARS epidemic, when many Taiwanese businessmen traveled from China to Taiwan via a third country in order to escape being placed under quarantine at home.

The general public needs to be educated about the catastrophes that can be created from their irresponsible behavior. Fundamentally, people need to learn to appreciate and love their country, so that they can be persuaded to stop such harmful conduct. At the same time, tighter border control and tougher penalties for illegal trafficking need to be in place to help effectively deal with the problem.

In terms of the current crisis with the red fire ants, the government has much to learn from the examples of the US and Australia. The US has been unable to control its red fire ant problem for the past 70 years. In that time the ants have spread to more than a dozen states, because the government did not effectively eliminate them when they were first introduced to the US. Australia, on the other hand, managed to eliminate a similar invasion of the ants within five years by immediately putting in the needed money, manpower and resources when the problem first started.

Although the legislative elections are coming up soon, politicians should take time from their busy campaign schedule to deal with problems such as the red fire ants, which can wreak havoc on people's everyday lives.

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