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Please Aunty! Can we have a satisfying discussion about the Tasmanian fox evidence?

The other month, now Sydney-based Tasmanian refugee Alexander Thomas listened to two ABC podcasts about Tasmanian foxes.

Firstly there was one with Dr David Obendorf and then Professor Chris Johnson at UTAS. One says the evidence of foxes in Tasmania is overwhelming and the other says this is not the case. Alexander maintains that neither interviewee presented or discussed the actual evidence for their claims and opposing opinions.

As usual Alexander was left choking on his coffee still no wiser about who or what to believe. Tired of the uncertainty and endless unsatisfying snippets that never seems to cut to the actual facts, he flushed out Dr Obendorf on the Tasmanian Times and asked him to explain his position.  Dr Obendorf listed what he maintains are the flaws in the evidence on TT comments.

Alexander spent two more weeks reading everything he could get his hands on about the issue and then wrote this letter to Professor Johnson. In his opinion there are some very troubling aspects to the fox saga that are never discussed in any detail. He is asking the ABC for satisfaction and a proper debate between two scientists who each use science to come up with completely different conclusions.

He wrote to Mr Andrew Fisher (Manager ABC News and Current Affairs) on the 14th September 2011 detailing his request.

What about it Aunty? How about we get the two scientists in the same room and go through the actual evidence for once?

So far Mr Fisher has not replied.

In his words:

“This is not about opinion…I don’t think anyone is claiming that foxes would be anything other than a major disaster for Tasmania. This is no longer the issue and has not been for a long time.  The issue is the quality of the information and the certainty that foxes are here and being controlled if they are…I doubt that there would be very many people in Tasmania not wanting to cut to the evidence for a change”

The original letter to Professor Chris Johnson:

Dear Professor Johnson,

Like many I have been following the Tasmania fox issue with great interest for many years.

Recently I listened to your ABC interview (July 28th 2011) where you rebutted Dr David Obendorf’s claims about the uncertain nature of the Tasmanian fox population (July 26th 2011).  Afterwards I investigated both claims in some detail for two weeks.

The potential risk posed by foxes in the Tasmanian environment is clear to me and not questioned. Instead, I am concerned about the quality of the evidence that suggests to you that wild red foxes are currently present in Tasmania.

(PARAGRAPH OMITTED ON REQUEST OF THIRD PARTY)

Of particular interest to me was the basis of your belief expressed on the ABC over the implications of the discovery of various fox bodies. I must admit that I have not found this or other indirect physical evidence compelling. I was surprised that such clear and absolute certainty was forthcoming from someone with scientific standing at an academic institution.

It surprises me that much of the physical evidence used to support the presence of foxes in Tasmania can be regarded as ‘scientific’. I had thought that science needed reliable data with qualified error? Shouldn’t a scientist be very concerned to address claims of misinterpretation, fabrication and flawed data? It appears to me that much of the fox evidence has been accepted even when it is provided in dubious circumstances and when other explanations have come to light.

I have a strong perception that scientific rigour is being forgotten in this matter in the face of a good cause and this worries me. Most would never agree to abandon legal principle because a crime was considered too horrific.  In a similar way surely science has a higher principle that goes beyond any causes? It is a slippery slope otherwise.

The scat DNA results seem to be the most convincing of all evidence to date that suggest foxes are present in Tasmania. Even here a range of seemingly reasonable counter claims and explanations have been proffered. I remain unconvinced until some issues are dealt with and think that this is only logical. There appears to be evidence that error may be implicated that has been ignored.

After many thousands of scats have been tested only an extremely small proportion have been found to be from foxes and no two from a single fox.  The distribution of single scats (never two scats at the same place either) seems almost random. I find it difficult to dismiss the possibility of error born from contamination, procedural errors or even skulduggery, mainly because there is no other corroborating physical evidence. I draw your attention to point 5 below (as claimed by Dr Obendorf), that if true has far ranging consequences.  It appears that ample fox DNA (in the form of scats, urine and body parts) has been transported to Tasmania and used extensively in the field. Do you have absolute confidence that contamination of samples has not occurred?  How do you have this faith and how does such faith rest easily with normal precaution and scientific scepticism?

Most have assumed to date that scat DNA evidence is 100% correct and infallible, yet the fox scat detected on Bruny Island is dismissed without accounting for what may have caused such a result. More concerning was that the FEB was initially fully convinced of a fox being present on Bruny Island, mounting a full search and making pubic statements attesting to its reliability. Only after it was deemed to be fox-free was an alternative explanation offered.  This is totally unacceptable as far as I see it. No scientist can retrospectively throw out contrary evidence like old socks when it does not fit their hypothesis and assumptions any longer. This is not science.  This result points to a proven error in the scat DNA technique or data so that it can no longer be regarded as 100% accurate.  If indeed there is error it may be only in rare cases where it would be noted.  There are very few island samples of course. All Tasmania wide positives have so far been treated as valid yet no other independent physical evidence has been accumulated at the sites where the scats have been collected.  I ask you, what questions should a scientist be asking about this?

Any?

A low level of error could explain the almost random distribution of all the scat DNA results, their wide distribution and failure to produce corroborating evidence at any site (just like the Bruny Island scat).  A retrospective claim was made that the Bruny fox was detected due to a problem in reading handwriting (not by the FEP I believe, but by a former government employee).  But surely you need to prove this with some evidence more than a glib comment (the label concerned perhaps?). Otherwise it remains something you cannot easily dismiss and must explain. In fact it seems disingenuous to make a retrospective claim based on no evidence at all just because you need to dismiss inconvenient data.

Again the above seems consistent with people being much more concerned with a cause than with objective science.  I regard this as dangerous. I think it would be appropriate to clarify your own position on this.  I’m not sure that a good cause is justification enough for ignoring inconsistencies in data that if applied to a less emotional issue would easily set off alarm bells.

Interestingly too, immediately after it became widely known that FEP had brought large numbers of scats to Tasmania (and even advertised for fox hunters in NSW to collect them!) scat DNA evidence has no longer been found. This too needs an explanation. It may be coincidence, but let’s see some evidence.  I for one cannot believe the naivety of the FEB to aid and abet the contamination of the Tasmanian environment with fox DNA in such a crude way and then have no way to track mainland samples with 100% confidence.  The complete absence of fox DNA was crucial to the confidence of the scat DNA test in Tasmania. The use of fox urine and faeces in lures has also destroyed this confidence.  How could anyone maintain otherwise?

Recently on the Tasmanian Times site Dr Obendorf summarised for me some of the flaws associated with the physical evidence and I attach them below (with only a couple of edits to enhance clarity and flow).  I am sure that they lack the full detail that Dr Obendorf may be able to provide. Nonetheless, I think that they need to be addressed, issue by issue. If any of them were true it would not be unfair to suggest that you have misled the public in your recent statements. I hope that you will examine the specific counterclaims made by Dr Obendorf and do so publicly if only to affirm your position and prove him wrong.

1. The fox allegedly shot by Mr Eric Bosworth at Symmons Plains in September 2001 - the storyline accompanying this critter was particularly troubling and the prize exhibit that might have been compelling evidence of this being a free-ranging Tasmanian fox wasn’t kept! An oversight we were told. When questions were raised about the exhibit by colleagues in DPIPWE, it was later suggested that Mr Bosworth might have shot this fox in another part of Tasmania and shifted it to the location he claimed he shot it. This scenario would of course make Mr Bosworth’s written witness statement completely untenable. Fellow shooters and friends of Eric know that Mr Bosworth had boasted that he shot the fox in Victoria and brought it into Tasmania. This fox incident is particularly troubling as it contained just a few relictual remains of an endemic Tasmania mouse (some identifiable hair and a tooth.  These discoveries were made after the severely decomposed fox had been examined by a trained pathologist; these important exhibits of the mouse were found by a member of the Fox Program after the pathologist had completed his examination.

2. Dead fox found at Bernie by side of the Bass Highway close to the Burnie CBD. Blunt trauma to head was the diagnosis. COD? - assumed to be consistent with motor vehicle accident; road-killed. This dead fox received considerable publicity - “the Fox in the Box” held by the then Minister for Foxes appeared in Tasmanian newspapers. This storyline has also changed when it was revealed - again by a Fox Program official - that this was an imported fox that was killed by humans and dumped by the road side.  Follow up inspections in the area by the Fox Program failed to find any evidence of fox habitation or scats. Hardly a local resident of the Burnie CBD.

3. The Lillico fox cub - claimed to have been first seen on the road-side in late December 2005 by a visiting lone Canberra cyclist touring Tasmania - not reported until mid-February 2006. As discussed above. (The statements made by the DPIPWE scientist advising the Fox Program about a back story that a Tasmanian rabbit-shooter shot and allegedly moved this fox cub to the Bass Highway at Lillico are available….).

4. The Glen Esk Road dead fox of 1 August 2006 - in which the cause of death, time of death and location of death have all been shown to be incorrect. A serious fabrication and public relations exaggeration.

5. The fox ‘blood’ at a chicken pen on a bushland property at Old Beach (near Hobart) - May 2006. Dead hens in situ and then an elaborate trap was set by the Fox Program with decoy hens. Presto… Fox DNA recovered from a piece of framing wood close to a crude barb-wire trap in the pen’s perimeter fence. A DPIPWE manager at the time of the incident went on the ABC explaining in detail how the fox had jabbed itself on the barb wire and a droplet or two of blood had dropped onto the wood below the barb; how this was recovered and found to be ‘DNA fox’. No fox hair, no fox foot-prints, no photographs no fox saliva (DNA) on any dead chooks. Dog DNA recovered from the dead hens, images of devils, dogs, feral cats and quolls. Fox urine used as a lure at this location.

6. And then there’s the 57 DNA-positive scats from north to south, east to west, even one fox scat from Bruny Island! [see the most recent FEP map of the fox evidence].

7. And finally there’s the discovery of a single fox skull found between December 2008 and March 2009 near Interlaken in the Central Highlands. It was found by a ‘member of the general public’ and wasn’t given to the Fox Program until July 2009. Follow up checks of the area in October 2009 failed to find any other bones of this animal or evidence of ‘fox activity or presence’.

8. The (only) two foot prints recorded on the FEP fox evidence map (the only two over the entire duration of the programme) refer to the set of cast prints taken by Nick Mooney at Burnie in 1998 after a fox escaped from the ‘City of Port Melbourne’ freight ferry and a single clear cast of print located at some swampy area near Longford after the May 2001 fox alert.

In my opinion, evidence based upon the anonymous and/or belated and revised scenarios is nothing that a scientific conclusion can be based on.  What is your opinion? I hope that it is not that given the cause, scientific norms can be suspended because of the cause?

Incredibly, the recovery then disappearance of the key exhibit from the highly dubious Bosworth fox (the endemic rodent’s hair) so that it cannot be re-examined is nothing short of extraordinary.  Given the controversy that this rodent is found nowhere near the claimed site of the fox’s recovery (claimed by retired Prof Rose from UTAS no less) and the impossibility of distinguishing this rodent’s hair from a Victorian species, one might think this absolutely vital. Isn’t another plank of scientific investigation the ability to repeat and confirm observations?  Or just not in this case?

How is this possible that no one is now able to test the samples that so much of the programme was based on?  I find it incredible that any scientist could defend this as a acceptable practice and I would like to know how you in particular can justify it?  If you had the hair of a thylacine in a fox scat, would you toss it away after you told everyone? Would you expect everyone just to trust you?

The above (points 1 – 8) is still referred to as hard evidence by the FEP. There were no qualifications in your statements to the Tasmanian public.  Is it actually hard evidence or perhaps very flawed and evidence of a highly dubious nature as Dr Obendorf suggests? Or is Dr Obendorf wrong about all of this? Please tell me.

Add to this the inability of the FEP to detect a single fox using more than 100 trail cameras and it is ever more mysterious.  When 57 fox scats can be recovered over a very wide area of Tasmania, but not a single fox print using the same trained dog the mystery deepens considerably. I doubt I am alone in finding this remarkably inconsistent evidence.

The best one of course is that we are left with a baiting programme that has been unable to demonstrate the uptake of a single fox bait (by a fox). Not one. This contrasts with prior information that suggests foxes to be widespread, including 1000s of sightings, claims of over 100 (sometimes to 300) individual foxes in Tasmania by your own FEP. Are these claims that you support without qualification as well? There are at my count at least some 21 fox genotypes and bodies.  It makes no sense to claim that we can eradicate foxes if no evidence has been collected that baiting has killed any, yet they are seemingly abundant at the same time.  This too is an extraordinary piece of conflicting information that has never been properly discussed. Can you explain it please?

A lot of this does not add up Professor. I have no agenda other than wanting to get to the facts of this matter.  I have placed every piece of my communication about this issue on the public record (Tasmanian Times) and have refrained from communication with either party (yourself and Dr Obendorf) in private. I elect to continue in this manner with the hope that the ABC will provide a forum for a satisfying discussion between you and Dr Obendorf.  Let’s hear it from the horses’ mouths for once!

Many Tasmanians are deeply frustrated by this issue.  We want to hear from the scientists and those involved and not the spokespersons, politicians and administrators.  I for one am sick to death of being patronised by information that makes no sense. The ABC has the opportunity (some might say a firm obligation) to rise to the occasion and show us journalistic integrity in hearing both sides of this debate. It would be appropriate to hear both arguments and full and frank discussion centred on the actual evidence and not generality.  Most want to get to the bottom of the specific evidence.  This is not about opinion.

I don’t think this is too much to ask for, is it? After all, the taxpayer is picking up the bill for the fox program, UTAS and the ABC (I’m not sure about Dr Obendorf!) combined. It would seem that if the taxpayer ever had a moral right to know about any issue it is this one.

In case I need to emphasise it again, I don’t think anyone is claiming that foxes would be anything other than a major disaster for Tasmania. By and large I think most are also very tired of hearing this as the primary motivation for the programme.  This is no longer the issue and has not been for a long time.  The issue is the quality of the information and the certainty that foxes are here and being controlled if they are.

I would be immensely grateful if you could explain your opinions and conclusions addressing the actual evidence and its apparent deficits. I will keenly await your reply and the response of the ABC.  I doubt that there would be very many people in Tasmania not wanting to cut to the evidence for a change. It will be a very memorable piece of radio I am sure.

Yours sincerely,

Mr Alexander Thomas
TASMANIAN REFUGEE

• David Obendorf: What Mr Dean told Parliament last week

FOX SKULL - Hansard Legislative Council
Tuesday 20 September 2011


Mr DEAN (Windermere) - Madam President, I want to give members some information on the background to the fox skull, which is used by the Fox Eradication Program to convince you and me, the Government and the Federal Government that we have foxes in the State.  It is a big part of the evidence they use.  Some of you might recall that it has taken me something like 13 months to get access to that skull.  I knew very well in taking all that time to access it, it probably would not be a straightforward situation.  I deduced that over a period of time because my phone calls and e-mails were not being answered.  I had a heap of problems in getting this organised.  On the face of it, it looks very good.  It is strong evidence that should satisfy even the most ardent of non-believers that foxes are in the State.  It is not quite like that when you look into the background.  The skull was found over a three-month period.  The person finding the skull said he found it over a three-month period back in 2009; he is unable to identify the time.  He was a gentleman from Railton and I am still trying to confirm some details about him.  The finder, when he found it, says he does not know where he found it; it was over a 20-hectare area of property.  Why he took it with him nobody really knows because it is believed he is not a collector of skulls, nor indeed did he believe it was a fox skull at the time he took it.  He indicated that he found it on a stump but it was later indicated to the press that it was found on the ground in amongst other things.  The story at this stage is that it was found on top of a stump.  It follows then that just by chance, I am told, members of the fox eradication program happened to turn up on his property and, lo and behold, saw the skull in the shed and decided to take possession of it.
The skull, as it was, was analysed and was found to be almost certainly that of a fox.  There is a very close resemblance between a fox skull and a small dog and there are some questions there, but we accept it was a fox skull and we do not have any problems with accepting that.  When I viewed the skull I took with me Dr David Obendorf, who is a veterinarian of the highest calibre and probably one of the best veterinarians and credentialed members in the country, not just this State.  He was able to carry out some examination at the museum with photographs, measurements and other things in situ at the time and he carried out further examinations when he returned home.  When I looked at the skull - my background in farming and finding sheep skulls et cetera all over the place - it did not resemble a skull that had been left out in the open for a long period of time.  If anybody is aware of what happens, they fracture and get lines through them and they discolour.  This skull did not look like that at all.  It looked like it had been a well-preserved skull.  Dr Obendorf carried out his examination and I will read a couple of comments from his final report:


‘Examination of skull on 17 August 2011
No evidence of any bone fractures or obvious damage to the skull - all skull bones were intact and undamaged; no evidence of predation by scavengers; samples from DNA testing had been collected from palate tissue and inner turbinates.  It appears the skull has not undergone obvious weathering effects from in situ exposure prior to its discovery.’

He makes the final comment:


‘Leaving aside the details of the alleged original discovery of the skull and then its recovery from a shed at Railton, there is no corroborative link to the Tasmanian landscape.  The provenance of this fox skull or indeed whether it belonged to a fox living at large in Tasmania remains unproven. To rely on this skull as official evidence of the presence of free-ranging foxes in Tasmania is untenable.’


Madam President, I am making some further enquiry in relation to this matter and further inquiry has been made, and I hope to bring back to this Chamber in due course some further information.


I just wanted to conclude by saying that that skull forms, as I said at the beginning, a big part of the evidence that was relied upon by the fox eradication program to demonstrate to us that we have foxes in this State.  It appears on all their maps, it appears on all their correspondence that they provide to the people throughout the State and throughout the country.
I am saying that there is a big question mark about it.  It is not what it all seems and there needs to be a much further and deeper investigation completed in relation to this matter as there needs to be in relation to a lot of the other physical evidence that is being produced and used.  There is not one piece of that physical evidence and I will give you another session next week in relation to another shooting of a fox, the Bosworth fox - and I will relate some of the details in relation to that, which also was relied upon very heavily.


So there are a lot of issues and it is not an issue that we should take lightly when we look at what is happening and the amount of money that is being used in relation to this program.