Australia: The Land of Plagues, Pests and Poxes

Now more than ever, it feels like the day when Australia will be swallowed whole by a maelstrom of plagues is nearing.
Townsville's annual Toad Day Out to collect and cull invasive cane toads. Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Australia has long been plagued. Rodents, insects, disease, poisonous toads, self-replicating, venomous starfish, flesh-eating bacteria, British people. We’ve got it all. 

You’d think that the 2020s would see some kind of progress. But you’d be wrong. 

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. For months, my REM has been interrupted by the sound of rats fucking in my bedroom walls.

The creeps made settlement in my inner-Melbourne sharehouse in early summer, but countless attempts to plug holes to the outside, store food in containers and souse surfaces with ammonia didn’t dull the incessant rattles, creaks and squeaks. (Neither did the few meagre handfuls of poison pellets my landlord lovingly dropped off in old margarine containers.) 


But a dozen professionally laid baits and $300 later, the scurrying has finally been silenced. 

“A significant amount of droppings up there,” the pest control person told me after climbing down from the attic.

“Looks like mostly rats. Likely mice, too.” 

Rodents were the very first of many plagues to befall Australia.  

European mice and rats were introduced by the First Fleet in 1788, bringing British diseases to our native fauna, decimating crops and infesting buildings for centuries.


Mice eating grains during the 2021 New South Wales mice plague. Photo: Nine.

To this day – and to the confusion of scientists – mice plagues have only ever occurred in two countries: China and Australia. 

The earliest mouse plagues struck in the late 1800s in South Australia and New South Wales, where farmers used ploughs to shred nests of thousands of scampering babies and have been increasing in frequency and severity ever since. 

The worst on record was in 2021 after heavy rain saw an abundance of plants and crops flourish following years of drought. Millions of vermin invaded and chewed through whole houses, inside and out, entered hospitals, bit patients, and “carpets” of them swarmed and stripped fields in days. It cost the economy about $1 billion. 


And that’s just one plague. The reality is Australia, despite being an island populated mainly by cute, herbivorous animals, has a long history of being overwhelmed by non-native creatures, bacteria and viruses at the beck and call of colonisers. 

In 1860, Victoria was so rife with disease the government built an infectious diseases hospital to deal with epidemics and treat patients with diphtheria, typhoid, small pox and scarlet fever. But after multiple revamps it was ultimately repurposed to become a psychiatry institute in 1996, two decades shy of the COVID-19 pandemic that overwhelmed our healthcare system and killed 20,000 Australians.

Australia has a delicate ecosystem with no shortage of space, delicious vegetation and dumbass imperial governments that continually introduce animals for sport, agriculture or even to quell other pests. 

When the First Fleet brought sugarcane to cultivate in our warm soil, native beetles had a field day munching on the sweet roots. So, in 1932, Arthur Bell, an entomologist working for the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, found the solution: amphibians from Puerto Rico! Eureka. 


The cane toad, a poisonous, fast-breeding, hungry lump was unleashed – 2400 of them at once – without any studies or reports into the potential impact they could have on the Australian environment. 

100 years later, these practically unkillable invaders have spread halfway across the country and some communities hold an annual Toad Day Out for family-friendly cane toad collection and culling. But in 2010, the Australian Government declared: “There is unlikely to ever be a broadscale method available to control cane toads across Australia”. 

The only species to present any threat to the cane toad is the native Australian white ibis, aka the highly adaptable bin chicken, which has learned it can shake the toad by the neck so that it excretes all its toxin over its skin and then rinse it off in the river, rendering it safe to snack on. 

But not even the bin chicken can save us. 


In 2024, our ecosystem is choking in the talons of many, many plagues – mostly caused by climate change and, somehow, finding ways to outlive and overcome it. 

And the higher-ups set the stage for this: mining, logging, fracking, drilling, spraying and dragging their feet on emissions reductions and fossil fuel taxes while committing ongoing genocide against the people who truly know what this land needs to heal and survive. 

In January, fire ants, “one of the worst invasive species to reach Australia” according to the Department of Agriculture, were seen writhing in masses to create rafts across flood waters in Queensland that were meanwhile drowning our native species. 


During the school holidays, the Victorian coastline was littered with white cabbage moth corpses washed up in the waves. In their caterpillar stage, these moths are common pests for gardeners and farmers that annihilate young, tender leaves on a variety of vegetables. But warmer weather sparked a mass hatching in summer that left the windshields of luxury cars cruising along the Great Ocean Road splattered with white wings. 


Victorian beaches were littered with invasive white cabbage moth corpses washed up in the waves. Photo: Aleksandra Bliszczyk

In February, a new global study found rising temperatures and cycles of extreme droughts and rains could help locusts breed at a biblical rate. One swarm of locusts can consume more than 1000 kg of green vegetation a day and many have eaten millions of dollars worth of crops in the eight major locust plagues in Australia since record-keeping began in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, our wombats are infected with mange, a skin disease caused by introduced mites, our koala population is threatened by outbreaks of chlamydia, about 300 million of our native birds get torn apart by feral cats every year and our possums are carriers of the flesh-eating Buruli ulcer bacteria that made it way to Australia from West Africa via mosquitos. 

Now, more than ever, it feels like the day when Australia will be swallowed whole by a maelstrom of plagues is nearing, while we have to pay rid our homes of for rodents, shoot brumbies from helicopters and go on family hunting sprees for cane toads.

So, do we deserve this? The next time you hear the pitter-patter of a rat on your roof, I want you to have a long, hard think. 

Aleksandra Bliszczyk is the Deputy Editor of VICE Australia. Follow her on Instagram.

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