To Cull, or Not to Cull? Feral Cats and Australia’s Extinction Crisis

Read time: 10 mins

Australia is facing a crisis.

It has the worst mammal extinction rate out of any other country on Earth: in the last decade, 3 of its native species have become extinct and hundreds more are currently on the verge of disappearing forever, too.

Although a longstanding issue, in recent years this crisis has grabbed significant public interest and media attention due to controversy caused by the country’s 2015 proposal to kill more than 2 million feral cats by 2020. This plan has sparked outrage among animal activists and celebrity figures, drawing out comments from household names including The Smiths singer Morrissey and French actress Brigitte Bardot. The proposal to eliminate approximately 10% of the feral cat population is an ongoing effort to save threatened and endangered species. Speaking to FactCheck ABC News, Gregory Andrews (Threatened Species Commissioner at the time of the proposal) highlighted the gravity of the situation: “35% of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 have been Australian (30 out of 84 world-wide extinctions)”. That’s a very heavy statistic indeed. Andrews believes culling the feral cats is for the greater good, explaining “Australia has lost 29 mammals since European colonisation, and feral predators are implicated in 28 of these”.

377, 000, 000
Number of birds killed by cats in Australia each year

649, 000, 000
Number of reptiles killed by cats in Australia each year

Figures from a 2017 study published in the Journal of Biological Conservation

Native small mammals, lizards and birds are predated upon by the feral cats – including quokkas, bilbies, bandicoots, parrots, frogs, numbats and quolls, among many others. The then Environment Minister Greg Hunt claimed the country’s 20 million odd feral cats each kill up to 4 animals a day: equating to no less than billions of creatures killed by cats per year. It is accepted that Australia has an overwhelming feral cat problem, with roughly 20 million cats spread across 99.8% of the nation, but some believe these figures might not be entirely accurate. Opposing experts say the commonly quoted estimate of feral cat numbers was, in fact, extrapolated from density estimates in a single location. 2017 research using empirical modelling rebuked these original figures, estimating the number of Australia’s feral cat population size to be instead much lower than 20 million at between 2 – 6 million, depending on environmental conditions. This is a far cry from the original estimate, and if these figures are correct the current cull target will eradicate a much larger slice of the population than intended – which could have unexpected adverse impacts, like an increase in other pest species. Some argue the cull then has a weak scientific base, for as well as inaccurate data on the feral cat population, most importantly the cull itself is not explicitly linked to measured increases in threatened species populations.

Quoll and Numbat

“The lesser bilby, desert bandicoot, crescent nailtail wallaby and large-eared hopping-mouse are just some of the unique Australian species that the world has lost forever due to feral cats. These were delightful creatures, rich in importance in Australian Indigenous culture, and formerly playing important roles in the ecology of our country.”

Gregory Andrews, publicly writing to Morrissey and Bardot in support of the culling decision

The ongoing cull has caused a divide, with some applauding the action as a substantial effort to conserve biodiversity, and others condemning it as an act of mass genocide. Culling feral cats evokes a strong emotional response in many humans due to the fact they are a common companion animal, and the sheer scale of the cull has made the conservation effort hard to swallow for many others. The proposal continues to mobilise millions of Australian dollars in shooting, trapping and poisoning feral cats, and the government continues to reject the possibility of a trap-neuter-release scheme: on the grounds that such efforts would be futile as released cats, although no longer breeding, would still be predating countless animals every day for the rest of their lives.

“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”

Gregory Andrews, Former Threatened Species Commissioner

Cats are indeed a major problem, occurring in the millions across 99.8% of the nation and their heavy predation poses significant risk to native species. But it should be noted they obviously aren’t the only factor at play; climate change, hunting, invasive species and habitat loss are all contributing to the annihilation of Australia’s animals. A climate-change driven heatwave in 2018 killed 23,000 spectacled flying foxes over 2 days – wiping out one-third of the population. This biblical number may even be an underestimate according to Dr Justin Welbergen, an ecologist at Western Sydney University. Climate change weather patterns are impacting numerous animals – like the white lemuroid possum, which only lives in 2 populations in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. In 2005 a similar heatwave almost completely wiped out the animal, which was then declared possibly extinct until 3 were spotted again in 2009. The species is clinging on by a thread; Professor Stephen Williams, who has spent his career studying wildlife in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in N. Queensland, explains that many tropical species can’t handle extreme heat – “They haven’t evolved mechanisms to cool their bodies down”, he says. “They don’t sweat, they don’t pant, they don’t have a way to keep cool. Because they’ve never had to”.

Although anthropogenic impacts are also threatening Australia’s wildlife, the Dept. of Environment and Energy states that feral cats are the single biggest threat to the country’s native mammals – double that of foxes, which are the next biggest threat – and look to peer reviewed science to back up their claim. They also state feral cats to be a substantially bigger threat than habitat loss. It should be noted however that habitat loss is a politically sensitive issue, and its link to economic growth (via agriculture, urban development etc) means it is often eagerly overlooked in conservation strategies by governments keen to pin the blame on other factors. In the Threatened Species Strategy, habitat loss is mentioned just twice, whereas feral cats are mentioned 78 times. The focus on factors impacting native species appears to be unbalanced, as land clearing is also a huge issue in Australia (clearing native vegetation in New South Wales rose by 800% between 2013 – 2016!), but was not mentioned at all in the strategy.

Culling cats is accepted by many experts as a beneficial conservation strategy, protecting at risk native species by reducing a voracious predator. However, the strategy also risks distracting attention from other threats to native species – in an ideal world, Australia would implement a comprehensive approach with equal effort placed upon anthropogenic factors like reducing land clearing and habitat loss, to name a few. The mass cull has divided both the general public and conservation experts – but one possible positive to come from the controversial effort in the very least is the intense publicity regarding Australia’s native species. Perhaps more attention, good or bad, will lead to increased efforts and spending to protect wildlife.

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