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Cane toads in ADF Timor base 'common knowledge'

The Sun Herald - September 16, 2008

John Kidman – Senior military personnel knew Australian troops were responsible for introducing cane toads to East Timor two years ago, it has been alleged.

The presence of the toxic amphibians inside the Australian Defence Force Camp Phoenix compound in Dili in mid-2006 was common knowledge, Defence Force sources have told The Sun-Herald. At the time, they were exclusive to the base and could have been eradicated but nothing was done.

It was revealed last Tuesday that Australia's most destructive pest is present throughout Dili and had also spread to several regional areas of the fledgling nation.

Defence Department officials are playing down claims the toads made the 650-kilometre jump by hitching a ride with East Timor-bound Australian military vehicles or supply shipments, arguing that it was impossible to tell how, when and exactly where they arrived.

However, soldiers formerly stationed at Phoenix say they have no doubt, and that quarantine measures which could have checked the infestation were non-existent.

Greens leader Bob Brown has described the migration as an international biological emergency demanding dramatic Federal Government intervention.

"It's evident that a wide area is already under threat and there's the potential for the toads to spread quickly to the Indonesian archipelago, Papua New Guinea and into South-East Asia," Mr Brown said.

Asked to estimate the likely cost of such a major eradication operation, he replied: "Whatever. It doesn't matter. It will be nothing compared to that of the cane toads doing their lethal worst. "It's something I'll be putting in very strong terms before the Senate this week."

Speaking in Darwin last week, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said he had yet to speak to Australian Defence Force head, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston about the issue but believed the Defence Force had "very strict quarantine controls".

In a statement the following day, the Defence Force said both government and non-government equipment had been transported to East Timor from a number of Australian ports during the past nine years. However, troop sources were adamant the toads first appeared solely inside Phoenix between July and September, 2006.

"Everyone to the rank of brigadier was required to do night picket duty; there was no way you could miss them," one soldier, who asked not to be named, said.

"You'd be out there for two hours at the front gate or on roving patrol and, basically, they were the only things moving. One of the majors stationed there was known to amuse himself by running around jumping on them."

Another infantry source said: "There were no toads at the time over the road in Crocodile Alley, there were none dead on the roads outside the base and none at the [Air Point of Departure] camp. They were only inside Phoenix.

"Early on, if they had done a collection each night they might have caught the problem but they didn't and it was obviously then just a matter of time before they got into the open drains in the Caicoli fields next door."

Dili-based Care International spokesman Simplicio Barbosa told ABC Radio last week: "There are so many toads in East Timor; they are brought in by the INTERFET (the International Force for East Timor).

We don't know how to get them away, how to kill them." The Defence Force said it was unable to verify the latest claims. A spokeswoman told The Sun-Herald that Australian facilities in East Timor were subject to stringent environmental health checks and various eradication procedures.

However, sources vehemently rejected this, claiming there were no dedicated environmental officers assigned to Dili's Operation Astute and that the only "pests" eradicated were local cats that had ventured on to the base in search of rats.