If we allow our minds to rewind to the dawn of our collective time on Earth, we might be forgiven for believing that the mass of dirt and water we inhabit was once an entirely different planet. Certainly, it would look quite unlike the world we share with an unknown number of other species today. Constant change has been the Earth’s MO. Yet ever since Australia broke free to become the world’s largest national continent – and home to some of the planet’s most selectively prized species – its collision course with the marauding brutality of colonialism and its infamous history of waging vast campaigns of violence against animals and the environment has left the land down under in relative ruin. In its wake, where great and expansive woods once were today are extensive fields used to feed imported animals with hard hooves. In its ever-expanding quest to temporarily protect their numbers from the teeth of four-legged predators, the government and agricultural interests have colluded in one of the modern world’s most unspeakable ecological crimes: the use of 1080 poison. 

What is 1080?

Sodium monofluoroacetate, more commonly referred to simply as 1080 (“ten-eighty”), was initially manufactured during World War II as a potent rodenticide. In the haste to immobilise the enemy and win the war, it was singled out as the most effective all-purpose killer chemical during tests carried out between 1943 and 1944. Why? Because it is odourless and tasteless. It looks like flour or baking soda. Due to these stealthy and chilling characteristics, it was considered a viable war-time water poison because its potential victims would be entirely unaware that they had ingested anything amiss (studies continue to assess the risk 1080 poses as a potential terror weapon for this reason). 

The effectiveness of any poison is measured by its lethal dose or “LD50”: the amount of poison per kilogram of body weight required to kill 50% of a sample size. Because of this, the lethal dose of 1080 varies between species. Though dogs, cats and other carnivores are the most susceptible to 1080 poisoning, only a teaspoon of 1080 would kill up to 20 average human adults. As little as 1mg is enough to cause serious, life-threatening poisoning: in 2018, it was estimated that Australia uses 200kg of 1080 powder – enough to poison every Australian 8 times over – every year. Though many nations moved to outlaw its use entirely, it has been implicated in the accidental or deliberate deaths, particularly of children who accidentally ingest it or workers in manufacturing facilities

Queensland Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Because 1080 is one of the most toxic substances in existence and no antidote exists, ingesting it is a death sentence. Under Federal law, 1080 is in the same restricted category as other notorious toxins like arsenic and cyanide. It’s high-risk potency has seen it cited as a chemical of security concern, meaning it could be a potential weapon of mass destruction, by the Australian Attorney-General. Despite this alarming admission, it isn’t illegal to obtain. Rather, it is liberally used in every Australian State and Territory in the euphemistic “control” of unwanted wildlife since the 1950s

1080 in Australia 

Though the use of poisons predates recorded human history and predators are baited in many parts of the world, the extremely dangerous and indiscriminately destructive nature of 1080 has been widely known for some time: it isn’t a secret and it never has been. It’s used because it is easy, cheap and uniformly lethal. Since it was first dropped on Australian soil, it has been implicated in scores of unintended deaths. Shortly after it was first used to kill rabbits, a veritable ark of animals began dropping dead: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, kangaroos, possums, bandicoots and various native birds all succumbed in a small area of Victorian farmland alone. Today, a range of introduced and native animals are targeted with 1080.  

The species currently targeted with 1080 in each Australian state and territory. Photo: Animal Liberation

In Australia, 1080 is primarily used in two ways: it is either laid in ground baits that are dropped in selected areas or loaded into helicopters and dropped across vast distances. In addition to these primary techniques, 1080 is also deployed in spring-loaded trigger devices known as Canid Pest Ejectors (CPEs). These effectively shoot a capsule containing 1080 directly into the mouths of victims when they trigger the spring attached to the meat bait on top.

NSW Local Land Services employees load 1080-laced baits in a helicopter (NSW Department of Primary Industries).
A CPE schematic detailing its function (Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development). 

The materials 1080 is laced with depend on the species being targeted. Herbivores, such as rabbits or pigs, are baited with grains, fruits or vegetables. Carnivores, such as dingoes, foxes and cats, are baited with meat-based baits (largely composed of kangaroo flesh). These may be injected by technicians prior to baiting programs with a liquid solution or pre-made baits sold to landholders. Though there are a range of regulations that apply to the use of 1080 in each state and territory, these are largely redundant given the fact that victims remain toxic after death and other species, such as foxes or birds, can move the baits vast distances and threaten animals in other areas.

Busting the myths

There are many myths surrounding the use of 1080 in Australia. These are primarily used to enable its use to continue unabated. Despite Government documents admitting that native animals are “not immune” to 1080, the supposed resistance some species exhibit is one of the most persistently promoted myths about 1080 poison. It is misleading and serves to provide the practice with a social licence to continue. It is based on the defence mechanisms some pea-producing plant species have developed against herbivory (the consumption of their leaves or peas by herbivores). Most of these plants are confined to one small corner of Western Australia and the poison used in baiting programs is synthetic, not natural. In fact, studies indicate that native species can and do die after ingesting 1080 baits. In eastern Australia, marsupials are over 100 times more sensitive to 1080 and up to 13, including bandicoots, potoroos, magpies, crows and kookaburras, are “at high risk” during 1080 baiting programs. The argument that 1080 is safe and poses no harm to native species is amply exposed by the fact that wallabies, pademelons and possums are baited with 1080 in Tasmania. 

Environmentally, it isn’t without significant irony that many of the animals persecuted and killed with 1080 are done so in order to allow other introduced animals, primarily ungulates like cattle and sheep, to continue to graze on extensively cleared rangelands uninterrupted. Land clearing, largely for agriculture, is an important animal welfare issue that is directly responsible for the death of up to 34 million native animals every year. It has also dramatically diminished and irreversibly splintered the habitats of many wild animals. In the aftermath, animals are forced to navigate a maze and face threats they otherwise wouldn’t. Meanwhile, introduced predators thrive in fragmented environments, including those raised to make way for expanding agricultural operations. 

As a result, conservation and forestry areas are now where many of these species seek safety. Because many of these areas neighbour private agricultural properties whose interests include the temporary protection of farmed animals from potential predators, these ecological refugees face increasing pressure from their lethal control. These programs, including 1080 baiting, have been identified as a key threat for surviving native species who have been so thoroughly and unceremoniously displaced from their ancestral home ranges. The suite of impacts caused by agriculture have thereby had a direct hand in the destruction of their habitats and their chances of survival when they are exiled elsewhere.

The impact of agriculture

Animal agriculture has loomed large in the dramatic reshaping of the Earth’s ecology. This is no more evident than in the persecution of the dingo by the Australian wool industry. Its lobby has relentlessly vilified the dingo for centuries, even though there is strong science suggesting that their presence naturally suppresses the populations of other introduced predators, like European red foxes. In fact, there is evidence showing that dingoes do a better job at suppressing foxes than 1080 does. 

To make matters worse, the vilification is illogical: continual baiting destroys dingo pack structure and actually increases predation rates. Even though this has been rarely recognised by any Australian government, individual landholders are beginning to make the connection: dingoes are essential to thriving ecosystems and poisoning them is counterproductive and cruel. In order to escape censure or public condemnation for killing one of Australia’s most iconic animals, the wool industry cynically refers to dingoes as “wild dogs”. Though hybridisation with domestic dogs is a conservation concern, evidence indicates that a staggering 99% of all wild canines are genetically identifiable as dingoes

Image: Animal Liberation

Collateral damage

The indiscriminate nature of 1080 means there will always be collateral victims when it is used. The tragic loss of companion animals and even local extinctions of native carnivores continue to be seen in the wake of baiting operations. To make matters worse, 1080 continues to kill after it’s already taken its first life. The corpses of its victims remain toxic and can cause secondary deaths if another animal feeds on their remains. Traces can persist in the bones of victims for over 7 months. Though it is impossible to estimate or quantify, because no central databank or record is kept, many millions of animals are killed every year in government and private “control” programs. 

Its ongoing use is creating significant ecological and ethical conundrums that are proving impossible to resolve. These have led some to conclude that “it is now clear that the era of 1080 baiting needs to come to an end”. Chief amongst these deadly dilemmas is growing community awareness and outrage over the tragic deaths of companion animals.

Despite this, its proponents continue to invent increasingly wicked and surreal ways to kill unwanted or unwelcome wildlife with 1080. In 2016, two wild dingoes were caught on mainland Queensland and shipped to a far-north island off the coast so they could kill an abandoned colony of wild goats. Prior to their voyage, an experimental capsule of 1080 was inserted into their bodies and set to “explode” after they’d killed all of their quarry. In 2019, sheep farmers suggested using drones armed with military-grade technology to kill any dingo they saw (or sensed) with 1080. Ecologists have even suggested injecting 1080 pellets into native prey species in the hope that predators will be poisoned when they eat them. 

A National Parks and Wildlife ranger affixing a warning sign to a tree after the 2019-20 bushfires (Department of Planning, Industry and Environment). 

And the numbers continue to grow. In 2020, the Western Australian government had declared the state too dangerous due to the sheer scale of 1080 for travellers to venture outdoors with dogs. The previous year, New South Wales peppered 1080-laced baits over a distance nearly the entire length of Russia. Following the devastating bushfires of 2019-20, it was announced that one million baits would be used to kill any unwanted survivors.

To paraphrase history’s greatest known biologist, Charles Darwin, those that survive are not the strongest but those that can adapt to dramatic changes. In modern Australia, no species is safe as long as 1080 continues to be used.  

A 1080 warning sign featuring a Ban 1080 sticker. Photo: Coalition of Australians Against 1080 Poison.
Author:
Alex Vince

Alex is Campaign Director with Animal Liberation and co-founder of the Coalition of Australians Against 1080 Poison. Alex has worked on issues ranging from the state-sanctioned slaughter of unwanted or unwelcome wildlife to the exploitation of farmed animals in animal agribusiness industries.