Guidance on the import of live hybrid animals

The following information is provided by the Department of the Environment (the Department) to clarify the Department's policy position regarding the purpose of the List of Specimens taken to be Suitable for Live Import (the live import list) and to inform those considering importing a live animal into Australia about the Department's regulatory policy in relation to hybrid animals. This policy forms part of the Commonwealth's broader policy position established to manage risks associated with importing live animals and has been put in place to minimise potential impacts to the Australian environment.

The List of Specimens taken to be Suitable for Live Import (live import list)

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), a live specimen is allowed to be imported only if it is included on the live import list. The live import list was established in accordance with section 303EB of the EPBC Act under which the Minister may establish a list of specimens that are taken to be suitable for live import. Specimens have been included on the live import list via two mechanisms as outlined below.

At the commencement of the EPBC Act, specimens listed (or subject to import regulation) under the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 (Cth) (preceding legislation regulating wildlife import and export) were transferred to the live import list under the EPBC Act. Subsequent to the EPBC Act taking effect, the Minister has, under section 303EC of the EPBC Act, amended the list to include additional specimens deemed suitable for import.

Anyone, whether a member of the public, a public or private institution or a commercial enterprise, can apply to the Minister to amend the live import list to include a new specimen. In order to make a decision to amend the list a comprehensive environmental risk assessment must be undertaken that demonstrates that the specimen does not pose an unacceptable level of risk to the Australian environment. For further information see Part 13A of the EPBC Act and go to: How to amend the live import list.

Interpreting the live import list

It is Department's approach to use the live import list as a 'positive list' in the sense that it is intended to include only those specimens that are permitted to be imported. Therefore, stakeholders should view the live import list as a list of all specimens that are allowed to be imported into the country, including any restrictions or conditions that may apply to importing a particular specimen.

However the live import list has historically not been clear on this point and some entries may have created some confusion. While the list is intended to identify those species that may be imported it includes several entries that are identified as exclusions, and also several listings which include exceptions. For example, under the listing for Rabbit fishes the entry says "Siganus spp. excluding Siganus rivulatus and Siganus luridus". This was determined to be the most economical approach to reflect that all of the fishes in the Siganus genus were deemed acceptable except the two species that were specifically excluded (on the basis that they represented an unacceptable risk to the Australian environment to allow import).

Hybrid specimens and the live import list

Currently, the live import list explicitly includes one hybrid (Equus asinus x Equus caballus, Mule/hinny) and specifically excludes one hybrid (the Savannah cat - a cross between a domestic cat and an African Serval). This has created confusion about whether other hybrids are therefore permitted for import.

Eligibility for import of hybrid animals

Definition of a hybrid: A hybrid is defined as the result of interbreeding between two species or subspecies of animals, including interbreeding between a domestic or listed specimen and a wild species or wild sub-species, or between two wild species, regardless of the generational distance from the wild specimen/s.

Definition of a breed: A breed is defined as a type or form of animals within a species having a distinctive appearance and typically having been developed by deliberate selection.

The Department's policy position is that hybrids are not permitted into Australia unless specifically listed on the live import list. This means that crosses or hybrids of animals on the list, whether one or both ancestors are already on the list, are excluded from import unless the specific hybrid type is assessed and added to the list in its own right. Therefore any cross or hybrid, irrespective of generational distance from the original mating or wild ancestor is prohibited unless specifically listed.

The live import list was established as a list of 'specimens', rather than species, to allow for the inclusion of items at different taxonomic levels. While this approach was intended to provide sufficient flexibility to allow a specimen to be listed at a range of taxonomic levels (e.g. species, genus or family, as appropriate), the Department's view is that it was not intended to allow hybrid specimens to be automatically deemed to be included under a listed specimen without an assessment of the risk that hybrid may pose to the Australian environment.

Where there is doubt as to the ancestry of a specimen, the onus of proof to determine that the specimen is not a hybrid and is eligible for import as a specimen listed on the live import list, lies with the importer.

Risks associated with hybrids

In undertaking the environmental risk assessment for the Savannah cat it became apparent that breeders of domestic pets (particularly cats and dogs) are now creating new hybrids and this often includes selective breeding to retain characteristics of the wild ancestor/s. The Savannah cat assessment and associated independent research concluded that the risk a hybrid may pose to the Australian environment is not necessarily related to how many generations it is removed from a wild ancestor and found that hybrid specimens may represent a potentially greater risk to the Australian environment than a non-hybrid specimen. In the case of the Savannah cat the risk was deemed to be extreme.

The risks that hybrid animals pose to the Australian environment relate principally to the potential for an exotic species to establish a self sustaining population in Australia, and the consequential impacts they would have on the environment. Historically, a range of exotic species introduced to Australia have established self sustaining wild populations including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish. Many of these species impact negatively on the Australian environment by invading and modifying natural ecosystems; preying on or competing with native species or by causing land degradation through overgrazing.

While a range of potential risk factors (including the ecology of the species, the volume of animals likely to be released and number of locations; climate suitability compared with the species' natural geographic range; species' tolerance to disturbed environments) are considered as part of environmental risk assessments for a specimen, it is not feasible to consider all possible hybrids of a specimen as a part of that assessment. In order to evaluate the potential for a hybrid to impact on the Australian environment it is therefore necessary to undertake a risk assessment of each hybrid specimen in its own right.

Where a hybrid may potentially breed with established populations of feral animals, the risk that a hybrid may represent is significantly increased. Some of the additional risks associated with introducing hybrid genetics to non-hybrid feral populations include the introduction of hybrid vigour, and introduction of genetic traits that could increase hunting success.

Interpretation and application of the CITES 5th generation approach

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and is implemented in Australia under the EPBC Act by the Department.

In order to determine whether or not a hybrid specimen should be regulated under CITES, the following approach is applied as a test: "A hybrid animal regulated under CITES is one that in its previous four generations has a parent the species of which is listed in Appendix I or II of CITES". This approach was adopted by CITES under CITES Resolution Conf. 10.17 Animal Hybrids and has been referred to as 'the 5th generation approach'. This simply means that if a hybrid is further than 5 generations removed from the CITES listed species, it is not regulated under CITES, whereas if it is less than 5 generations removed then it is subject to the provisions of CITES as if it were the original listed species.

Historically, the administrative approach for determining how hybrid specimens are treated under the EPBC Act has also been based on an assessment of hybrids against the CITES 5th generation approach. Application of this approach to determine potential eligibility of a cat or dog for live import meant that if a specimen was five or more generations removed from a wild ancestor it was considered to be a domestic animal and was therefore eligible for import as a listed specimen. As a result, Bengal cats (a hybrid between a domestic cat and the Asian leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis) have been imported as domestic cats by application of this approach.

While useful for protecting species threatened by trade, the CITES 5th generation approach was not developed to protect the environment from invasive/feral animals. The CITES 5th generation approach does not recognise that a hybrid can pose a unique and significant environmental threat.

The intent of the live import list under the EPBC Act is to allow new species into Australia only if the potential risks to the environment are considered acceptable. Application of the 5th generation approach effectively permits the unconditional import of hybrid animals whose principal species are on Part 1 of the live import list, without any assessment of their potential impacts on the Australian environment. As a result, the Department considers the application of the CITES 5th generation approach to determine eligibility of hybrids for import to be inconsistent with the intent of the EPBC Act and therefore not relevant to the consideration of hybrids for live import purposes. While clearly relevant for the regulation of trade in endangered species, the CITES definition is not relevant to regulatory arrangements put in place to manage environmental risks associated with the import of exotic wildlife (including cats and dogs) to Australia.

The Department has reviewed its policy position in relation to the acceptability of hybrids for import (based on the scientific assessments outlined above) and will only apply the CITES 5th generation approach when determining whether or not a specimen is subject to CITES.

As a general rule the Department considers that the potential risks that hybrid specimens may represent to the Australian environment mean that no hybrid is eligible for import (regardless of how many generations removed from an original mating or wild ancestor) unless they are specifically listed on the live import list. Any decision to amend the live import list to allow the import of a new hybrid will be based on an assessment of the risk the hybrid specimen represents to the Australian environment. As stated above, anyone may apply to amend the live import list in order to have a specimen included (including a hybrid specimen) on the live import list.

Legacy issues and the precautionary approach

In developing this information to clarify the policy on import of live animals under the EPBC Act, the Department has considered legacy issues associated with the policy.

Domestic cats and dogs

Of particular note is that domestic cats and dogs were originally included on the live import list through a transfer from the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 (Cth) under section 303EB(4) of the EPBC Act at the establishment of the live import list. As such neither underwent a risk assessment (as is now required under the EPBC Act) and had such an assessment been undertaken, would almost certainly have been deemed to represent an extreme risk to the Australian environment (the Department has acknowledged the extreme risk that the feral cat represents by listing it as a key threatening process and has developed a threat abatement plan to manage that risk).

The Department is of the view that it is neither feasible nor appropriate to consider a ban on the import of domestic cats and dogs and has therefore taken a precautionary approach to minimising the risk that they represent to the Australian environment, by establishing a broad policy position that requires assessment of any new hybrids on a case by case basis (including hybrid cats and dogs) to ensure they do not represent an unacceptable risk.

Historical import of hybrids

Some hybrid animals have been imported into Australia for a significant period of time, including the Bengal cat. This hybrid has been imported into Australia since 1996. The Department accepts this to be a legacy issue and its approach is to recognise the Bengal cat as an exception to the general policy.

Importers of Bengal cats should contact the Department for further information regarding eligibility prior to any imports, but no changes are proposed in relation to Bengal cats at this time. Any changes would be subject to extensive consultation prior to adoption.