Australia’s feral cats are a menace to native species

19 September 2019

Cats. Don’t we just love them? The felines occupy a special place in many people’s hearts as a glance at Facebook or other social media platforms will reveal.

Yet these furry creatures can become a menace to other animals.

Take Australia. The isolated continent is home to unique biodiversity that cannot be found anywhere else on earth, yet it also has one of the world’s highest loss of indigenous animal species. The main culprits behind this ongoing mass extinction of native species are invaders, large and small, that have come to infest almost every part of Australia.

Various invasive species have been directly affecting 1,257 of the country’s indigenous endangered species, as per the findings of a recent study. The researchers behind it have classified invasive species into three categories: 207 invasive plants; 57 invasive animals; and 3 invasive pathogens.

One of those deadly invaders that have been introduced into Australia is the cat. Although many of them are kept as pets, but some have gone feral, living in the wild where they avoid contact with people. These feral cats are expert hunters and have helped cause something of a biodiversity crisis.

Cats were likely introduced into Australia in the 17th century by European settlers. Today they are estimated to be present at 99.8% of the nation’s territory. In the process of spreading far and wide, feral felines have driven some 20 species of indigenous mammals extinct. Their killing spree has included more than 1 million indigenous birds and 1.7 million reptiles.

The Australian government plans to cull 2 million feral cats by 2020, although this plan has come in for flak from animal lovers. However, native fauna are vulnerable to invasive species, especially cats, as the continent’s species have evolved without the presence of these deadly predictors. Many conservationists think something needs to be done to protect Australia’s unique species.

“At least one, and probably two, Australian mammals have been made extinct in the last decade, and if current trends continue many of the 55 threatened species will disappear within our lifetimes,” said Prof. John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University. “If we had to choose one key action to conserve Australia’s biodiversity it would be the control or eradication of feral cats, which currently threaten at least 100 mammal species,” he added.

Several approaches aimed at controlling the population of feral cats have been in use across the country, including airdropping poisoned sausages and shooting cats on sight. Whether such approaches will be effective enough at controlling the population of feral cats remains to be seen.

Cats are highly fertile animals that can reproduce fast. They are also highly mobile, which means they can easily reinvade areas from where they have been driven away.

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