In the coming months a new and improved poison baits will be rolled out alongside more sophisticated trapping devices to target feral cats. Increased use of dogs to guard vulnerable native animal populations will also be increased in an attempt to protect vulnerable species.
Being a nocturnal and reclusive predator cats are difficult to count. It is estimated that feral cats populations are sitting between 5-20 million. Feral cats thrive even in the desert regions where they do not need water to drink — slaking their thirst on the blood of their prey. Reproducing rapidly, with almost no predators, feral cats keep populating until there is no virtually prey left to kill.
Primarily responsible for at least 20 extinctions, including the desert bandicoot, the broad-faced potoroo and the crescent nailtail wallaby, cats have helped give Australia the dubious distinction of having by far the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world. Feral cats have wreaked havoc elsewhere as well: In one recent report, scientists allege feral cats are at least partly responsible for 60 extinctions worldwide.
But cats have perhaps caused the most problems in Australia, the only continent, except Antarctica, with no native cats, and where the native wildlife has no instinctive dread of the feral menace. Weighing as much as 9 kilograms, cats have ripped a swathe through Australia’s wildlife and last year these descendants of the domestic cat, felis catus, were officially declared a pest by the federal government.
Vociferous cat lobby
Further north, in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, the endangered pygmy mountain possum is under the care of another couple of dogs — one to sniff out where the tiny creatures are living, the other to find the main predator, feral cats, which are then shot. Elsewhere, work continues on developing a trap that can detect the presence of a cat and squirt it with poison.
He says those opposed to baiting, a small but sometimes vociferous lobby comprising people who would prefer feral cats to be caught, neutered and then released, has had little real impact. “People say I should be raped by feral cats; blown up by ISIS; me and my family baited with 1080 and dumped in the bush,” he said. “But I sleep very well at night knowing that I’m saving our wildlife from extinction.”
One solution could be biological control, which has been extensively used in Australia to keep the populations of introduced rabbits at manageable levels. If scientists developed a non-fatal disease that would render feral cats infertile, domestic cat breeders could be provided with a vaccine — with the result that the feral cat population would be painlessly eliminated within a matter of years. Cat breeders could be provided with a vaccine to ensure a supply of domestic felines for cat-lovers.
Andrews says the government is open to the idea of bio-control, but a note of caution has been sounded by some experts who fear such a disease could escape and spread overseas and, in the worst case, even sterilize endangered native felines such as tigers in India or lions in Africa.
Gregory Andrews, Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner, says the feral cat is a difficult species to deal with. A ferocious hunter, the cat prefers live prey, Andrews told the Nikkei Asian Review. They will only take a bait when prey is scarce — in winter, or during dry spells. “Different circumstances require different technology and different combinations,” he said, adding: “There’s no panacea.”
The federal government has invested more than 4 million Australian dollars ($3 million) into developing the Curiosity cat bait, a small meaty sausage encasing a hard-shell poison pellet. When Curiosity baits have been approved by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, a decision expected later this year, commercial manufacture will begin. Andrews said that under the right circumstances, Curiosity baits can reduce a feral cat population by as much as 80%.
Cats inhabit many remote and inaccessible districts in Australia, where it is difficult and expensive to send hunters and hunting dogs. Aerial baiting is considerably more cost-effective, although it works more efficiently with the fox, another introduced species.
Feral cat with a phascogale, a carnivorous marsupial, in its mouth (Photo: Fredy Mercay, Australian National Environmental Research Program)
The Western Australia government is already using a sausage cat bait called Eradicat, which, like the Curiosity baits, uses a sausage to attract the felines. Eradicat uses 1080 poison — a toxin tolerated by many Western Australia native animals. This tolerance prevents excessive collateral damage, when the baits are sampled by, say, goannas or the native quolls (a small carnivorous marsupial native to Australia). Curiosity uses a different tactic. Researchers have found that cats rip edible chunks from the bait and swallow them whole, making it more likely they will ingest the poison pellet.
Andrews and wildlife officials across Australia have other weapons in their arsenal. Dogs, specifically the Italian Maremma sheepdog, are being deployed in the southern state of Victoria to guard a tiny population of eastern barred bandicoot, now technically extinct in the wild.