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The fox that wasn’t there?

By Clive Marks - posted Friday, 23 July 2010

Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.
Hughes Mearns

When Winston Churchill spoke of a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” he may well have been describing the Tasmanian fox incursion.

Many people believe that foxes are established in Tasmania, yet others believe that a breeding population does not exist and never has. Ten year later, the elephant in the living room is that a number of things don’t seem to add up.


If you believe foxes abound in Tasmania, you are actually stating something quite different from saying you know it for a fact. And when we state that there is evidence that foxes have been introduced to Tasmania, this is not the same as saying that a population of foxes is established.

Irrefutable evidence is just that - evidence that no one can argue about. The buck stops with the scientists to produce irrefutable evidence. This is why we have science, for it is the curse of humanity that arguments about different beliefs are often bitter, but are never conclusive without true knowledge.

Witness testimonials are not and never will be considered scientific data, and science would not work if they were. If we are willing to use sightings alone as proof of the distribution of foxes in Tasmania, we must also be willing to conclude that thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) abound in Tasmania and even mainland Australia (where one private research group claims 3,800 sightings).

If the real distribution of foxes in Tasmania even approximates the many current sightings or the map of the physical evidence alone, then it will be impossible to eradicate them. There’s no comfort to be found in any scientific studies to suggest that the remotest chance exists for eradicating foxes under these conditions, especially if foxes keep popping up in unexpected locations like vulpine mushrooms. There is no precedent for the eradication of foxes using the buried baiting methods used in Tasmania; it is unproven for this purpose and this is clear from many scientific studies.

As you writhe in denial, think about this also. No established exotic vertebrate pest has been eradicated from an island the size of Tasmania, possibly with the exception of coypu (a South American rodent) in the United Kingdom. Foxes on small islands, such as Phillip Island in Victoria, have yet to be eradicated despite ongoing attempts for at least two decades. Phillip Island is more than 600 times smaller than Tasmania, which is the world’s 26th largest island after all; a very big haystack to find a vulpine needle in unless you knew exactly where to look in the first place - which apparently we didn’t.

An extensive baiting effort did not get underway for years after the supposed introduction date of foxes. If Tasmania was invaded by sloths, the speed and magnitude of the response may have been quite capable of effecting their eradication. But foxes work faster than both sloths and bureaucrats.


But hang on a minute, what if the data to support the current distribution of foxes in Tasmania is tarnished, or somehow not what it seems to be? What happens to our conclusions if instead of accepting these results uncritically, we go searching for some “elephants” lurking behind Tasmanian settees?

It was widely reported that someone introduced 11 foxes to Tasmania in 1999. Unbelievably, this has never been claimed to be a factual event, although it remains the quintessential nub of pretty much everything that has followed in some 11 years since. Normally confidential Tasmanian Police Force documents I have only recently viewed are clear that there was insufficient evidence to support this event as factual.

So, isn’t it time to deal with this particular discrepancy once and for all and to everyone’s satisfaction?

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This is an edited version of an article which was first published in the Tasmania Times on Jluy 18, 2010. The original article can be read here.

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About the Author

Dr Clive A Marks is the director of Nocturnal Wildlife Research Pty Ltd and was the head of Vertebrate Pest Research in Victoria for over a decade. He has published widely on aspects of fox biology and control in independently peer-reviewed science journals.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Clive Marks

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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