The red imported fire ant has spread across the southern United States since its introduction in the early 1900s to Alabama, wreaking billions of dollars in annual havoc on livelihoods, landscapes and native species.
But the United States isn’t the only country that’s been affected. Originally from South America, the red fire ant has hitchhiked on a variety of imported goods and containers and can now be found in countries surrounding the Pacific region, including China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Australia.
Pacific islands are particularly vulnerable to ant invasions, since they often possess few if any native ant species of their own. Now, Nature Conservancy partners and scientists in the Pacific are working to stop the spread of the red fire ant by sharing information and management expertise through learning networks.
And the work could serve as a global model for stopping the spread of invasives in other island ecosystems.
Small Ant, Big Problems
“The red imported fire ant is a notoriously destructive invasive pest,” says Souad Boudjelas, Program Manager of the Pacific Invasives Initiative (PII), a Conservancy partner.
“It costs the United States billions of dollars per year in impacts, and causes considerable economic damage to other countries they have invaded.”
But that's just the beginning. The ant also:
- Causes harm to many species, including ground-nesting birds, turtles, small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates;
- Can displace native ant populations;
- Gathers seeds of various plants and buries them, thereby reducing the number of those plants and stopping areas they disrupt from regenerating; and
- Can invade homes and buildings and threaten humans and pets with its painful and sometimes fatal sting.
“If the red fire ant was to reach the islands, it could spread very quickly between them, having a disastrous impact on people’s livelihoods and native plants and wildlife,” says Boudjelas.
But the red fire ant is only one of many invasive ant species of concern to the Pacific Islands.
Other invasive ants on the Pacific Islands have already caused thousands of dollars in damage and in some cases forced locals to change lifestyles and even abandon their homes.
“These already-established invasive ants require management strategies to prevent their future spread and distribution,” says Boudjelas.
However, the Pacific Islands have been able to keep the red fire ant at arm’s length for the time being — largely because of the management expertise that has been shared through learning networks created to deal with other invasive ant species on the islands.
How We're Sharing Knowledge to Prevent Invasions
The Conservancy is supporting networks that share information on these invasive species — and these networks are proving incredibly successful in combating invasives' spread.
PII initiated the Pacific Ant Prevention Program (PAPP) in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and others, and the program is now maintained by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. This network has been instrumental in improving quarantine procedures on the Pacific Islands to ensure the ants are readily identified and prevented from invading local ecosystems.
When red fire ants were found recently on a yacht arriving in New Zealand, PAPP set off a region-wide alert to all islands the yacht had previously visited to ensure ants had not been introduced.
Learning networks not only help to manage and prevent new ant invasions, but sharing information also raises awareness about the impact of invasives species in general on livelihoods and biodiversity of the Pacific Islands.
“Exotic ant infestations are notoriously difficult to eradicate once established,” says Boudjelas.
“And effective early detection and prevention measures are likely to be very cost-effective compared to incursion responses," she adds. "By raising awareness of invasive ants and instilling a culture of prevention, the learning networks will also have wide reaching impacts on the whole issue of invasive species in the Pacific.”
How The Caribbean and Other Regions Countries Could Benefit
The Conservancy is supporting PII and other invasive networks in hopes that their work can be a model for other island ecosystems around the world. For example, in the Caribbean, invasive species such as palm mites threaten economies and livelihoods.
“The success of this ant prevention program in the Pacific demonstrates the effectiveness of regional approaches to stop new introductions of invasive species,” says Stas Burgiel, the Conservancy’s senior global invasive species policy advisor.
“We hope that this successful prevention model can be applied to other priority threats and transferred to other regions such as the Caribbean, where the danger posed by invaders is equally great.”
The Conservancy will work with governments and other partners to address the issue of invasives species at the Ninth Conference of the Parties on Biological Diversity (COP 9) in Bonn, Germany this May.
“If other regions join us in supporting this approach, we will be able to make real progress globally in the fight against invasive species,” says Burgiel.