Friday, 1 November 2013

Snake bites and pets in the Melbourne area

Brown snake in Victoria, Australia. Source: Wikicommons

Spring has brought a surge in the number of pets being bitten by snakes in the greater Melbourne area. Some of this increase is due to the arrival of warmer months, but the upturn is more than just seasonal: a spate of land renewal projects--notably, housing developments being built on reclaimed swamps--may be the prime culprit.

Kylie Kelers, of the University of Melbourne's Veterinary Hospital, says the rise in residential developments along Melbourne's suburban fringe has had an effect. "I do think we've seen more snakes than we have at the same time in previous years," she said.

But the risk to pets vary from suburb to suburb. "Suburbs around swampy or waterway areas are the areas where we see the most bites," she adds.

According to Dr. Kelers, hot spots in Melbourne's southwest include:
  • Werribee--near Werribee River
  • Hoppers Crossing--along Skeleton Creek
  • Point Cook and Williams' Landing--reclaimed swampland
Dr. Kelers lists these areas because her clinic serves Melbourne's southwest. She says that wetland areas along the Yarra River and Merri Creek could be equally dangerous for pets.

Patrick Honan, the manager of live exhibits at Melbourne Museum and a former veterinary nurse, has found that snakes are particularly a problem in Melbourne's newly developed western suburbs. 

He says that snakes are hardy. "With a lot of animals, as soon as suburban housing takes over, the animals disappear, but snakes they tend to hang around 20-30-40 years after housing is established." 

Places Victoria, the government agency that oversees the Riverwalk housing development on Werribee's south-western fringe, has a mandate to develop urban renewal on sites not suited to the private sector. In many locations, their development involves converting swampland into residential neighbourhoods. 

Its renewal plans include conservation efforts; generally, portions of suburban riverside and swamps are reclaimed for recreational use. Their website promotes the river running trail and adjacent wetlands, where it is "hoped that the unique Growling Grass Frog will be attracted back to the area".

"That is like candy to a snake," says Scott D'Agostino of Reptile Education Victoria, a private company that promotes reptile conservation through education. "They live on frogs." 

Mr D'Agostino is concerned about the increasing trend of building houses on snakes' natural habitat. "Unfortunately, you are now mixing snakes and people together." In the end, will the snakes disappear? Not likely, according to Mr D'Agostino.

Ben Duggan, a sales representative for the Riverwalk housing development, agrees that snakes could be prevalent in the new housing estate. Mr Duggan used to have a business near the Barwon River in Geelong. "Tiger snakes are a big problem there. I'd assume we'll have the same problem."

On the only continent where venomous snakes outnumber the nonvenomous ones, what responsibility do developers have to ensure that new projects are safe for habitation? Are suburban renewal and conservation efforts putting suburban dwellers and their pets at risk? Or is it the case of "buyer beware"? 

The Citizen contacted Places Victoria, but the organisation--which last month reported the largest loss by a government entity in the past decade--chose not to comment on the effect of building major housing projects on swamplands and other snake habitats.
Students at UoM Veterinary Hospital
Source: University of Melbourne
Meanwhile, the University of Melbourne Veterinary Hospital has intensified its annual campaign for pet owners to be aware. The hospital has recommended that should a pet be bitten, owners need to keep their pet still, carry it to a car, and immediately drive to the nearest veterinary hospital.
Dogs suffering from a severe snakebite have the best chance of recovery if taken to the veterinary hospital within thirty minutes. According to University of Melbourne veterinary toxicologist Mark Davis, about 80 per cent of treated dogs survive. "It is great to be able to send our patients home with no long lasting effects if the stars are aligned!" he says


Monday, 28 October 2013

Lyme Disease

In a letter to doctors earlier this month, the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Baggoley, announced the progress of the committee that will advise him on the evidence for Lyme disease in Australia. The disease--which can be fatal--has been recognised in America since the 1970s, but this is the first time the Australian government has indicated formal acceptance of the disease.

"I was in an electric wheelchair for eight years," explains Nikki Coleman of the Lyme Disease Association of Australia. Once she began treatment for Lyme disease, her condition improved. "I can start earning money, I can start paying tax, I can start contributing to society."


Lyme disease (borreliosis) is a tick-borne bacterial infection. The infection, which can begin with a fever and bullseye-shaped rash, can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, it can sometimes spread to different parts of the body -causing symptoms like neck stiffness, shooting pains from nerve damage, heartbeat irregularities and a loss of muscle tone in the face called Bell's palsy.

Although doctors accept that travellers can contract Lyme disease overseas, there is debate about the existence of the bacteria in Australia. Australians who have not travelled overseas have developed symptoms similar to those of Lyme disease. However, many doctors are not certain if the cause of their illness is the Lyme bacteria.

Location of Lyme disease patients reporting tick bites. 
Source: Lyme Disease Association of Australia

There are no formal figures on the illness, but the Lyme Disease Association of Australia estimates there are more than 10,000 diagnosed cases in Australia, and many more, perhaps in the order of hundreds of thousands who remain undiagnosed.

The disease is controversial. Practitioners such as Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokesman Ronald McCoy express sympathy for people showing Lyme-like symptoms but believes it is not Lyme disease. "I'm not saying people are lying," Dr McCoy says. "The College is very much evidence-based medicine and we can only really go on the evidence we have at this time."

Others are certain the disease exists in Australia. "We're talking about the fastest spreading disease in the world," said Queensland GP Andrew Ladhams. He has been treating Lyme patients for the past nine years.

To help resolve this conflict, the Department of Health and Aging (DoHA) has established a Clinical Advisory Committee on Lyme Disease to provide advice on: identifying the microorganism; diagnosing Australian cases; and deciding on treatment options. The committee has commissioned a research study to begin next year.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

VicForests: New laws help industry grow cosier

The state-owned company at the forefront of Victoria’s timber industry has escaped further legal sanction after complying with court orders to rehabilitate 22 hectares of rainforest.

Despite the penalty, green groups fear the episode, along with recent changes to forests law, could mark a more lax attitude towards the transgressions of loggers.

As part of the sanctions, VicForests was required to upgrade education programs for its workers. The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE, now part of DEPI) also mandated that the company build ties with environmental advocacy groups as penance for having cleared illegally eight hectares of protected forest in East Gippsland last year.       

Although the case tarnished its image, the company has lived up to its part of the deal. The bond ends this month, and both VicForests and DEPI (in eerily similar statements) confirmed that the 12-month probationary agreement has been complied with in full.

VicForests, a state-owned company, oversees the contractors who harvest and replant trees. The forestry company has improved training so contracted loggers can better recognise rainforest plants.

Also, a spokesperson from the Arthur Rylah Institute confirms that the company has begun working with the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory group.

VicForests' action on the final condition is less clear. VicForests claims it has replanted 22 hectares of native bush in East Gippsland, but neither the company nor DEPI confirmed the exact location.

According to VicForests' annual report, the legal costs involved in such environmental battles were the key reason for its net profit loss in 2011-2012.

The government has been making moves to assist the failing industry. In a bold move to cut the industry’s administrative costs, the Victorian parliament passed a series of amendments to the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act (2004) on June 28, 2013. Ms Young is concerned that will give VicForests a carte blanche to native forest in Victoria.

Amelia Young from the Wilderness Society is concerned that the transgression sets the stage for more disaster. Her biggest concern is how VicForests will protect the environment given their heightened autonomy in the recent Timber Act amendments.

“It’s putting the fox in the henhouse,” said Ms Young.           

She believes that because the board is responsible for pursuing commercial returns, they are not best placed to consider the environmental costs of logging operations. “In fact, given their responsibilities, it is likely they will not,” Ms Young stated. She cites the illegally cleared hectares as a prime example of timber transgressions.

The recent amendments remove the requirement for contractors to have an operating licence, give VicForests indefinite ownership of transferred land, and allow VicForest’s Board to approve its own timber harvesting plans. All three components of the plan have come under criticism.

A chip off the old block: How new laws affect forestry regulation

Source: Author (via Austlii)

Hansard records confirm that members of the Victorian Government claimed cutting requirements for harvester’s licences would reduce redundancy. Members of the opposition voiced their concern that the government’s primary motivation was economic, at the expense of safety.
Logging advocates are quick to counter that the environment will be safe. Forests are still governed by Management Plans. Harvesting has to meet the Forest Practices Code. So there are regulations, even with the new amendments.
But the degree of freedom now awarded the industry is unprecedented. Amendments allow VicForests to approve its own Timber Release Plans—which contain details of where they will harvest and replant. This year’s rainforest logging ordeal has made environmentalists wary that VicForests, if approving its own plans, will slip again.

Even if VicForests does not harvest any more native forest, activists question if the company’s plans for replanting would neglect to invest in robust, bio-diverse flora. The National Sustainability Council reported that regrowth vegetation—which tends to be just one species—is of less ecological value than rainforest.

Activists also have a third concern about self-regulation: short-sighted over-harvesting. Chris Orchard, a Melbourne based volunteer with Wilderness Society Victoria, is struck by the devastation of over-logged native forests.

 “To describe it to someone who has never seen it before, they are like post-apocalyptic landscapes.” –Chris Orchard, Wilderness Society Victoria. Photo: Wilderness Society

Forestry advocates counter that harvest levels from public native forests are below the calculated ‘sustainable levels’. As one member of the Victorian timber industry remarked, “It’s only 10 per cent of the forests” (that’s sixteen times the size of Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Park).

Despite the “sustainable” levels, conservationists are concerned that VicForests can now determine where and when they will log, without any longer having to put their logging plans out for public comment.

Source: National Sustainability Council

Not only is the Board now in charge, but the new amendments allow the state to allocate land to VicForests indefinitely. The time period used to be 15 years. Kelly O'Shanassy, CEO of Environment Victoria is concerned about the state government’s motives: “We’re worried that the brown side [corporate profit] of the debate basically is going to completely overshadow the green side, which is the environment protection.”

But how profitable is this venture? Premier Denis Napthine boasts that VicForests has earned an $11.58 million net profit during its eight-year life. But since 2007, VicForests has been attacked (most notably by The Age) for failing to produce a consistent profit.

Source: Author using data from VicForests annual report, 2012

The above chart shows the amount of timber the company has produced (increasing, see green area). VicForests pulls in around $120,000 in annual revenue. In other words, the timber is selling (black line). Yet the company is losing money (red line).

Court costs aside, environmental activists have latched onto the argument that there is fiscal danger in indefinite ownership. So for both sides, as spring planting begins, the court battle may be over, but the war continues.

This article appeared in The Citizen.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Hippos interrupted: tunnel stress fears for zoo's higher orders

Below is the beginning of my article in the Sunday Age about the imoact of the East-West Link on the zoo animals. Read more in the Sunday Age:

A quiet weekday at Melbourne Zoo, and just off the rainforest path, Petre, a 28-year-old pygmy hippo, sinks into the warm water and waits for love. She will likely be waiting a while.

This is a time of quiet anticipation for the zoo's southernmost residents. Zookeepers have brought Petre here from Taronga Zoo to mate with Felix, an import from the Cairns Wildlife Safari.

The mating process is delicate. Zookeepers are monitoring the hippos' behaviour to gauge the right moment for the two to be introduced; too early and Felix could feel the full force of Petre's teeth. The process could take a year or two. Meanwhile, the pygmy hippos wait in separate enclosures in the zoo's Royal Park home. Patience is everything.
For 150 years, the zoo has been a haven for endangered species. But the animals may now be facing a threat to their sanctuary. The first stage of the proposed 18-kilometre cross-city toll road includes a six-kilometre tunnel running within 300 metres of the zoo's southern corner....