Indigenous rangers in northern Australia have started managing herds of feral animals from space. In the largest project of its kind in Australia, the so-called Space Cows project involves tagging and then tracking a thousand wild cattle and buffalo via satellite.

Water buffalo were imported into Australia’s Northern Territory in the 19th century as working animals and meat for remote settlements. When those communities were abandoned, the animals were released into the wild.

Their numbers have grown, and feral buffaloes can cause huge environmental damage. In wetlands, they move along pathways called swim channels, which have caused salt water to flow into freshwater plains. This has led to the degradation and loss of large areas of paperbark forest and natural waterholes, as well as spreading weeds.  

Under the so-called Space Cows program, feral cattle and buffaloes are being rounded up, often by helicopter, tied to trees, and fitted with solar-powered tags that can be tracked by satellite.

Scientists say the real-time data will be critical to controlling and predicting the movement of the feral herds, which are notorious for trashing the landscape.

Most feral buffalo are found on Aboriginal land, and researchers are working closely with Indigenous rangers. They carry out sporadic buffalo culls, and there are hopes that First Nations communities can benefit economically from well-managed feral herds.

The technology will allow Indigenous rangers to predict where cattle and buffalo are going and cull them or fence off important cultural or environmental sites.  The data will help rangers stop the animals trampling sacred ceremonial areas and destroying culturally significant waterways.  Scientists say the satellite information will allow them to predict when herds might head to certain waterways in warm weather allowing rangers to intervene.

In recent years, thousands of wild buffalo have been exported from Australia to Southeast Asia.

Andrew Hoskins is a biologist at the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science agency.

He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp’s AM Program this is the first time feral animals have been monitored from space.

“This really, you know, large scale tracking project, (is) probably the largest from a wildlife or a buffalo tracking perspective that has ever been done.  The novel part, I suppose, is then that links through to a space-based satellite system,” said Hoskins.

Australia has had an often-disastrous experience with bringing in animals from overseas since European colonization in the later 1800s.  It is not just buffaloes that cause immense environmental damage.   

Cane toads — brought to the country in a failed attempt to control pests on sugar cane plantations in the 1930s — are prolific breeders and feeders that can dramatically attack native insects, frogs, reptiles and other small creatures. Their skin contains toxic venom that can also kill native predators.

Feral cats kill millions of birds in Australia each year, while foxes, pigs and camels cause widespread ecological damage across Australia.  

Yellow crazy ants are one of the world’s worst invasive species.  Authorities believe they arrived in Australia accidentally through shipping ports.  They have been recorded in Queensland and New South Wales states as well as the Northern Territory.  The ants are a highly aggressive species and spit a formic acid, which burns the skin of their prey, including small mammals, turtle hatchlings and bird chicks.

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