Should immunocontraception be used for wildlife population management?
Australasian Fauna Laboratories, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia. Email:
Immunocontraception involves eliciting an immune response against eggs, sperm or hormones so that successful reproduction is prevented. Work in Australasia is aimed at European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), house mice (Mus musculus), common brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), koalas (Phascolartcos cinereus) and kangaroos (Macropus spp.), with the vaccines involved all containing self antigens or their relatives. Two fundamental problems have been inadequately addressed in this research. The first problem is that it is difficult to obtain strong immune responses against self antigens and so the vaccines may be ineffective. Most published data on the effect of immunocontraceptives on reproduction involve the use of an adjuvant of which there are many kinds. The materials enhance the immune response greatly. The most frequently used is Freund’s adjuvant which can cause chronic suffering. Its use on wildlife will lead to very negative public perceptions. There has been no convincing demonstration that successful immunocontraception is possible with any method of vaccination likely to be used in the field, if success is defined as contraception of a proportion of the population high enough for management requirements. If it is assumed that success can be achieved, the second fundamental problem arises with two potential consequences. Even with adjuvant, a substantial minority of the vaccinated animals remains fertile. The first consequence is that since failure to be contracepted is likely to be in part genetic, there is likely to be rapid selection for these non-responders. The method will become ineffective in a few generations. The second problem is that the offspring of the animals which breed will have altered immune responses. Their capacities to respond to their own pathogens or to harbor pathogens of other species in the same ecosystem are likely to be changed. The presence of chlamydia in P. cinereus and bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand T. vulpecula means that responses to these pathogens would have to be studied in offspring of immunocontracepted parents to ensure that the offspring were not more susceptible to them. New Zealand intentions to put an immunocontraceptive into a T. vulpecula gut worm must be viewed with caution by Australia. The eggs of transgenic worms will be easily transplanted either accidentally or deliberately back into Australia, and so infect T. vulpecula in Australia.