Cull of 2 million feral cats by 2020 to save native species

Australia has pledged to tackle the soaring feral cat population that threatens more native species with extinction.

Numbat by Martin Pot

Australian numbat

With 1800 nationally listed threatened species, the Australian Government has set targets for conserving 30 priority plant species, 20 mammals and 20 birds.

“That means humane culling of one of our wildlife’s worst enemies – feral cats,” said Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt in a statement.

Hunt presented Australia’s first national strategy for threatened species at the Threatened Species Summit, which he hosted to discuss native plant and animal conservation.

Descended from domestic cats introduced by European settlers, the population of feral cats on Australia’s mainland and islands is estimated at 15 to 23 million.

Each day, feral cats are killing an estimated 75 million native animals, that’s more than 20 billion mammals, birds and reptiles each year.

“Feral cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 27 mammal species. We don’t want to see that number grow,” said Hunt.

Ecologist Dr John Read has dissected more than 1,000 feral cats over 25 years after trapping or shooting them in the South Australian desert. Talking to ABC Radio, he described stomach contents that reveal an opportunistic predator.

“[Feral cats] eat falcons and cockatoos, bats, centipedes, scorpions… virtually every lizard, every snake, every frog, every bat, just about every bird in Australia and any mammal smaller than a large kangaroo, at least when they are joeys, are all susceptible to cat predation.”

Successful implementation of the five year plan with practical actions, measurable targets, and accountability will require co-operation and collaboration across all sectors of society.

The actions proposed are to reduce numbers of feral cats, create safe havens on islands and the mainland for species most at risk, improve habitat, and intervene to prevent extinction.

Norfolk Island green parrot by George Chapman

Norfolk Island green parrot

The numbat, mala and greater bilby are included in the first 10 mammals selected for priority action, and the first 10 birds include the helmeted honeyeater, Southern boobook owl and Norfolk Island green parrot.

The State of Australia’s Birds report provides a Bird Index that reflects the health of the environment. The report states that 144 of the 1241 bird species and subspecies found in Australia are threatened, with 18 species categorised as critically endangered.

The Southern boobook owl is in significant decline in every Australian region except one, and the well-known laughing kookaburra is in decline in south-eastern Australia.

Southern boobook DownFall Creek Reserve

Southern boobook owl

It’s not just about preserving biodiversity. Bats and birds help to control pest insects, and to maintain forests by spreading seeds. Plants and animals are also important to a nation’s identity and culture, to a healthy environment and to the economy by way of tourism.

Cats also carry the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis in mammals and birds. Disease transmission can be water- or food-borne via oocysts excreted in cat faeces. Oocysts can survive in the environment for up to 18 months, capable of infecting long after the cat has gone. University of Tasmania’s Bronwyn Fancourt reports that Australian marsupials are highly susceptible to toxoplasmosis.

There is some evidence that culling may not be effective when culled feral cats are replaced by neighbouring cats. Any culling plan needs to be carefully targeted, monitored, and maintained to ensure that culling outstrips breeding.

Humans caused the global feral cat epidemic by introducing domestic cats. Now is the time to redress the balance. Australia must be commended for taking a strong and potentially controversial stand to protect its diverse plant and animal species.

Read the full article at Nature in Mind

Image credits:

Numbat  by Martin Pot (Martybugs at en.wikipedia). Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Southern boobook owl
Norfolk Island green parrot  by George Chapman.Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Another Eye  by Acechando. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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Tracy is a freelance writer with special interest in scientific research and news on wildlife, the environment, animal welfare, and mental health. Follow my 'Nature in Mind' blog at www.tracybrighten.com and Twitter @TracyBrighten1

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