By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

FEATURE: Inside Australia’s feral cat eradication plan

by in Environment.

A feral cat on the banks of Cooper Creek, South Australia. Getty Images

A feral cat on the banks of Cooper Creek, South Australia. Getty Images

Australia is facing a feral cat problem that has gotten out of control. The roughly 20 million feral cats in the country devour an estimated 75 million native animals every day. They have already wiped out about 28 native Australian species and threaten over 100 more, posing a danger triple that of habitat loss and fragmentation. So to protect its biodiversity, Australia plans to eradicate 2 million feral cats by 2020, using a number of pest control solutions. On Monday, Director of National Parks Sally Barnes said that Kakadu National Park’s management board was keen to use recreational shooters as part of its cat management project, and was undertaking preliminary talks to do so.

Barnes said she is happy for sporting shooters to operate in the national parks as long as it is well-controlled and safety is taken into consideration. However, because feral cats are reclusive and scattered, the actual number of them likely to be found and shot by hunters is low. Therefore hunting won’t be the only culling measure, and thus the Kakadu board is looking at “a range of others as well.” Indeed, more promising initiatives are being trialed elsewhere in the country, including poison bait and toxic sprays.

Under trial conditions, a poisonous bait called Eradicat managed to kill between 70 and 80% of the cats that consumed it. And crucially, it won’t be lead to the mass-poisoning of native species. Because it is made from plants that grow in Western Australia, many native animals there have an innate resistance to the 1080 toxin — something invasive predators lack. Dr. Tony Buckmaster of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center (IACRC) at the University of Canberra admitted that “it is simply not possible to guarantee that no non-target animal will ever take a bait and die,” but he emphasized that the risk of not using the bait is higher if feral cats continue their eating spree unhindered.

Australia’s Department of the Environment (DoE) details the main culling projects on its website. In Western Australia, Eradicat feral cat baiting is being integrated with existing Probait fox baiting (foxes are also a non-native pest species in Australia subject to culling) to help protect threatened species across more than 850,000 hectares of conservation areas. And a new hybrid feral cat bait, Curiosity 1080, will be trialed in the Kimberley region. In both of these projects, trapping and remote cameras will measure effectiveness. Similarly, the Northern Territories will drop Eradicat baits by helicopter to control feral cats, also using camera traps to monitor the numbers of both cats and prey species.

South Australia, meanwhile, has developed a feral cat grooming trap. According to the DoE:

It uses sensors to detect the presence of a feral cat and sprays toxic gel onto the fur of the animal. The feral cat instinctively grooms the gel from its body and ingests a lethal dose of poison. The technology has been tested in the lab, and now field trials in Flinders Ranges National Park are planned to test its durability and reliability.

And in New South Wales, two dogs will be trained to detect feral cats and foxes that threaten endangered mammals in Kosciuszko National Park. A new, full-time pest control officer will trap and cull the feral cats and foxes once found. If this approach proves effective, it could be replicated in other National Parks.

Last week the DoE’s threatened species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, responded to criticism from animal welfare activists and celebrities over the culling plan. (In any case, the government emphasizes over and over that domestic cats and even stray cats living in cities and towns will not be targeted; rather, only cats which live, hunt, and reproduce in the wild without any dependency on humans.) “The threat to our wildlife are clear and feral cats are top of the list. We don’t hate cats but we don’t have a choice. We will do this as humanely as possible and we will reduce the net suffering of animals in Australia,” Andrews stressed, noting that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is involved in the cull to ensure it is done humanely.

He added:

Trapping, neutering and releasing 20 million cats would not be justifiable in terms of cost. Also, we’d be releasing a predator that will kill five animals a day for the rest of its life. It’s not justifiable. We can’t accept feral cats as part of the Australian ecology because if we do then we accept the extinction of bilbies, bandicoots, and numbats. I sleep very well at night knowing what we are doing. Australians support this.

Still, the point of responsible pet ownership is a valid one. Spaying and neutering domestic cats, and preventing their escape, is crucial to the long-term success of the campaign to eradicate feral cats. The government emphasized that it supports community efforts in this regard, and will pursue the development of a national best practice approach to the keeping of domestic cats. Additionally, the establishment of large “feral-free areas” surrounded by conservation fences is another key method for reducing the harm from foxes and cats. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is the leading advocate of this approach, and manages four such areas on the mainland totaling 17,150 hectares (plus 5,000 hectare Faure Island, where cats have been eradicated).

But above all, this nationwide eradication campaign is long overdue. And if anything, the target is too modest given the high breeding rate of feral cats. But the country needs to start somewhere, and the campaign is raising awareness of the problem with publicity and public participation. In fact, there’s even a free app for it: FeralCatScan. Along with an associated website, it allows users to record feral cat sightings, damage, and control, all of which is compiled into an accessible map form. It is a collaborative project by the IACRC and the DoE, with the support of individuals, communities, and businesses nationwide. As of Friday, it has recorded a cumulative total of 541 sites throughout the country.

However daunting the problem it faces, Australia can draw inspiration from the success of South Georgia Island’s rat extermination campaign. Some 95% of the original birdlife there had been killed off by the rats and mice that were inadvertently introduced by man centuries ago. But over the last five years, three helicopters working in rotation from the polar research ship Ernest Shackleton scattered millions of pellets baited with rodent poison over the glacier-free parts of the island where the rats and mice lived. And since the island was tentatively declared rodent-free earlier this year, the endangered native bird populations have been “returning in numbers we could never have imagined, along with other species which were the victims of rats,” said Tony Martin, director of the rodent-eradication project.

Due to its vastly larger size, an equivalent result may be impossible in Australia. But while feral cats may never be entirely eradicated in all of the country, their levels will hopefully be decreased enough that native species can retain healthy population levels despite occasional feline predations. This campaign will take time, and more will follow, so the sooner these culling methods are proven effective in the field and are scaled up, the better.