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Environment

Why Australia controversially plans to cull millions of feral cats

Australia plans to kill 2 million feral cats by 2020 in a bid to protect endangered native species. But some animal rights activists say there are better ways to deal with the feline predators.

Australia's federal government has declared war on feral cats, vowing to kill 2 million of them within five years, in an effort to protect threatened native species.

The federal government plans to establish five cat-free islands, and 10 safe havens for threatened and endangered animals on the mainland, fenced off against cats.

Domestic cats were introduced to Australia with European settlement more than 200 years ago as pets and farm animals, but many have gone wild and are now feasting on the country's endemic species.

Most Australian flora and fauna species occur nowhere else in the world. But 30 species of mammal have already been lost to extinction, and feral cats have been implicated in almost all of them.

"We're still losing mammal species in Australia at [a rate of] one to two per decade," said Professor John Woinarski, a conservation biologist from Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.

"We have one of the worst extinction rates in the world, and cats are causing havoc among Australian native fauna," he said.

Brown thornbill, French Island, Australia

Small mamals and birds, like this borwn thornbill, are among the species at risk from feral cats

The Australian government now wants to up the ante in protecting threatened species. It has devoted 6.6 million Australian dollars (about 4 million euros) to saving 20 mammal, 20 bird and 30 plant species at risk of extinction.

One of the largest fenced habitat areas will be created in the Northern Territory. But the majority of the money will go toward cat eradication.

Gregory Andrews has been appointed threatened species commissioner by the federal government and has the job of overseeing the new strategy. He said conservative estimates put feral cat numbers at 20 million around Australia.

"Each cat on average kills four native animals a day, ranging from insects to bandicoots and endangered parrots," Andrews told DW. "That's carnage of 80 million animals that are being killed and maimed by feral cats."

A trapped feral cat, Australia.

Feral cats are trapped using Kentucky Fried Chicken as bait

French Island aims to go cat-free

For the past five years, wildlife rangers and volunteer groups have been trying to eradicate feral cats from French Island, 60 kilometers south of Melbourne in Victoria's Western Port Bay.

So far, Parks Victoria along with the volunteer-run Landcare Group have trapped and shot 900 feral cats. They are hoping to reach 1,000 dead cats by the end of this year.

Ranger team leader Scott Coutts says French Island's wetlands and salt marshes, which attract migratory shore birds, are listed as an internationally protected site.

But they also attract feral cats. Coutts said there are cat footprints on every beach - so they target those areas of the park with traps.

At the Parks Victoria depot in the middle of the island, there are 100 specially designed traps stacked up in the shed.

Coutts reveals the bait they use is Kentucky Fried Chicken, because, he said "it lasts longer."

Wetalnds, Mosquito Creek, French Island, Australia

Mosquito Creek on French Island is surrounded by mudflats and wetlands where birds migrate to feed

But he doubts the current strategy of trapping and shooting will be enough to eradicate cats from the island. He wants to use aerial baiting to access the remote and inaccessible parts.

Two-thirds of French Island is national park, covered in thick bush without roads or trails. But aerial baiting for cats, although permitted in other states, is banned in the state of Victoria - highlighting the tension between federal and state legislation.

Julie Tresize from the French Island Landcare group also supports aerial baiting.

She said the cats target the island's endangered potoroos, a small kangaroo-like marsupials, as well as swamp rats and bird species such as black swans, pied oyster catchers, fairy terns, stints, curlews and fairy penguins.

"They do so much damage. If a domestic cat was the size of a tiger, it would rip a tiger to shreds," she said. "They're that vicious and cunning - they're just very effective predators."

Animal rights activists defend cats

But there is opposition to Australia's plans to kill of the feline predators. The most vocal opponents have been well-known French animal rights campaigner Brigitte Bardot, who described the cull as animal genocide - and British singer Morrissey, who said the plan is idiotic.

Living Planet French Island Sumpfland

Those in favor of the cull hope to protect French Island's migratory birds, like this grey tail tattler

Australia's threatened species commissioner Gregory Andrews has written to both these animal rights activists, pointing out that feral cats kill and injure more animals than they need to eat.

"I sleep well at night, knowing that by killing cats consistent with RSPCA's policies that I'm reducing animal suffering and saving species extinction," he said.

Should Australia embrace feral cats?

Yet there is also some opposition to the cull plans within Australia.

Ecologist Arian Wallach from the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology Sydney has proposed the controversial idea that Australia should embrace wild cats as part of its ecology.

"Killing cats just results in dead cats," she said. "It doesn't reduce the cat population, it doesn't reduce their predation rates, and I believe it's not ethically nor ecologically justified."

Wallach believes the dingo, which has also been culled due to its impact on sheep farming, could be used to control feral cat numbers.

Potoroo, French Island, Australia.

The endangered potoroo, a small kangaroo-like marsupial, is commonly preyed upon by feral cats

"Dingoes are Australia's top-order predator," Wallach said. "They do kill cats, they are a risk and a threat to cats, and cats will adjust their behavior in the presence of dingoes.

"But at the same time, we should look at ways to help cats coexist with their prey," Wallach added.

Woinarski disagrees. "Very many native wildlife species cannot persist with feral cats," he said. "Much of the rest of the world can have cats; nowhere else can have bilbies, numbats, potoroos and quolls. We should care for what is quintessentially Australian."

French Island is already seeing signs of success with its cat eradication program, and islanders are reporting a resurgence in native wildlife.

National Parks ranger Coutts said that he heard anecdotally that there had been an increase in numbers of smaller mammals, such as the endangered potoroo, and ground-dwelling birds such as the purple moorhen.

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