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Global Ideas

Depp's dogs: How important are Australia's biodiversity laws?

"Declare everything when you enter Australia", that's the message from Johnny Depp. The video he and his wife made apologizing has been internationally mocked. But how serious are Australia's biosecurity laws, really?

Dubbed the 'war on terrier', it sounds like a bad film with an even worse ending. And in a way it was. The case of Johnny Depp's dogs ended this week with the film star and his wife, actress Amber Heard performing a flat apology for bringing their pooches undeclared into Australia.

"Australia is a wonderful island, with a treasure trove of unique plants, animals and people," began Heard in the short video, which ended with the closing words from a deadpan Depp: "Declare everything when you enter Australia".

It brings to an abrupt end the affair that began after Depp and Heard bypassed Australia's strict biosecurity laws last year bringing their Yorkshire terriers Pistol and Boo into the country on a private jet - a violation that was discovered after a picture of the doggie duo at a dog groomers in the Gold Coast appeared on social media - go figure.

The film stars were told in no uncertain terms that the two dogs would be euthanized if they were not taken back to California. Something like that seems a bit of an overreaction on the side of the Australian authorities, right? But is it?

As Heard rightly points out as part of her apology, Australia is an island. And it's one that is fairly isolated from the rest of the world. That means its biodiversity has been largely protected from a number of diseases that can be found elsewhere.

One such disease is

rabies

, a particularly nasty infection that is most often spread through the bite of rabid mammals and can also infect humans. It leads to a fever, headaches and later to symptoms including hallucinations, partial paralysis and hydrophobia (a fear of water) before death, which invariably happens in a matter of days. When you have as many poisonous animals as Australia boasts, perhaps it's nice to know that the chances of your dog getting rabies and biting you is not yet another threat!?

Then there is the risk of invasive species making their way into the country and threatening the indigenous animals, many of which are unique to Australia - I'm thinking kangaroos, platypuses and wombats. In fact, around

80 percent

of Australia's animals are endemic.

This is something, with which the island already has experience.
Back in the 1930s,

venomous cane toads

were released into the wild with the hope they would control the population of the cane beetle. The program was not hugely successful. Rather than getting rid of the scourge that destroys sugar cane plants, it introduced another pest to Australia. Facing few natural predators, the toad is doing well, with numbers now into the millions.

Then there are the Asian honey bees. After being brought across to Australia by ship they are devastating bees native to the island and cause problems with regard to crop pollination. Not to mention the red fire ants that have invaded Australia - the government has reportedly spent $281 million trying to get rid of them - and Myrtle rust plant fungus that are threatening natural ecosystems Down Under, according to the

Sydney Morning Herald

.

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization calls biosecurity "one of the most important issues facing the international community" both to protect producers' livelihoods, which can be "destroyed by animal and plant pests", and to maintain ecosystem stability. And as we've seen, it's something the Australian authorities take seriously - arguably, for good reason.

It might seem unlikely that Depp's dogs posed any real threat to biodiversity in Australia, but should the pair get away with flouting Australian biosecurity laws just because they are famous? Is it worth the risk?

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