The Australian government intends to eliminate two million feral cats by the end of the decade, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced on Thursday, waging a war on hordes of felines that are said to be the single biggest threat to many of the country's native species.
"By 2020, I want to see two million feral cats culled, five new islands and 10 new mainland areas as safe havens, free of feral cats, and control measures applied across 10 million hectares," Hunt declared.
Millions of feral cats roam around the continent, and scientists say that they are a primary factor behind one of the world's biggest extinction crises. Australia has seen the extinction of more mammals than any other nation, losing at least 29 indigenous mammal species since the British started settling New South Wales in 1788.
Western colonists introduced cats to the continent, where runaways and abandoned pets have evidently thrived. Most estimates put the number of feral cats in Australia at 20 million, while some put the figure as high as 30 million.
"Each cat kills between three and 20 native animals a day," Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April. "So if you assume four animals a day, that's carnage of 80 million native animals a day."
More than 120 threatened species — including the hairy-nosed wombat, the northern quoll, and the boobook owl — are at significant risk because of cats in the wild, which can grow much larger than typical household cats and weigh up to 33 pounds.
'It's very important to emphasis too that we don't hate cats. We just can't tolerate the damage that they're doing anymore to our wildlife.'
The new five-year "threatened species strategy" includes the use of a FeralCatScan monitoring program that allows community members to log feral cats and their activity, as well as the scaling up of trapping and cat management programs. But some US$3.6 million — roughly half of the strategy's budget — is being devoted to eradication.
The elimination of wild cats will involve the use of detector dogs, fencing, and shooting, as well as the use of a new poison bait called "Curiosity," which has been developed by the government and a private biotech company over several years. A toxic compound in the bait stops the flow of oxygen within the poisoned cat, and is described in the government's plan as "the new humane feral cat bait." It will be placed inside pieces of meat that are molded to resemble sausages.
Andrews has stressed that the government has no ill will toward cats.
"It is very important to emphasize too that we don't hate cats," Gregory Andrews he remarked to ABC Radio. "We just can't tolerate the damage that they're doing anymore to our wildlife."
Whether the effort to kill off millions of cats will succeed in significantly affecting their distressing impact on native is open to question, given the gargantuan estimates of their numbers and the rapidity with which they reproduce.
"We're kidding ourselves if we think we can eradicate them," Dr. Jim Radford, a conservationist with the conservation organization Bush Heritage Australia, told VICE News in April. "It's difficult to bait and trap them, because they're very shy, and culling through shooting is very difficult; you can't shoot that many cats."
"Australia is more vulnerable to introduced pests, because it's been an island for so many millions of years," he added. "The evolutionary history has been one of long isolation, and species here don't have the wherewithal to survive these invasive pests."
The strategy marks the first effort of this scale to kill off feral cats on mainland Australia; the cats, which are being listed by Australian states and territories as harmful pests, have previously been cleared completely from three of the country's islands. There have really only ever been population control programs on the mainland, operated across the country by a patchwork of non-governmental organizations, local councils, and government agencies.