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March 27, 2017

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Researchers sound alarms on fire ant invasion

Exotic red fire ants could ravage the whole island of Taiwan in the next three to five years if the government fails to take effective steps to ward off the massive invasion of the insects.

Researchers issued the warning when attending a symposium on the invasion of foreign species held at the Academia Sinica.

They said that the serious new pest found its way into Taiwan via the cargo containers for imported products two to three years ago. The fire ants have affected about 4,000 hectares of farmland in Taoyuan County, 100 hectares in Taipei County, and 50 hectares in Chiayi.

A total of 13 townships in urban and rural regions have reported severe infestations of the poisonous ants.

With a reddish-brown head and body as well as a darker abdomen, the ants originated in South America but have already caused direct damages totaling US$5 billion a year in the United States. The attack from the fire ants also claimed lives, including over 100 deaths in 1984.

The experts said that in addition to farm lands, orchards, farmhouses, and bamboo woods, the ants also build nests in urban districts, including parks, streets, rail tracks, and electrical equipment like power meters and traffic lights or household appliances.

The fire ants inflict a fiery sting that causes blisters or pustules for several hours. The blisters become itchy while healing and are prone to infection if broken.

Some Taiwan farmers stung by the ants have had to stay in hospitals for several days before recovery. The ants also attack domestic fowl or livestock.

The researchers expressed concern that Typhoon Aere, the latest typhoon that hit Taiwan hard, could have further expanded the habits of the ants on the island.

Without effective control, the annual financial losses caused by the ants could reach NT$150 billion each year in Taiwan about 20 years from now.

The researchers said that 30 years later, the annual loss could double to NT$300 billion per year.

They called for closer coordination among government agencies, including the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture, to map out comprehensive measures to quickly eliminate the fire ants before they spread out of control.

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