As per the previous post here, on Thursday this week I was enjoying an early morning drive along the Carpentaria Highway in the NT’s Gulf Country after a few days at Borroloola and came across this freshly-killed Feral Cat Felis cattus. As regular guests here would know I have a penchant for road-kill (follow the tab on the right to see more). I should have a bumper sticker that says “I Stop For Roadkill.“
But there is a serious side to this. There is little doubt that feral cats wreak enormous damage upon our native wildlife. This is no less true in our cities and towns than it is in the bush. As the NT government’s Parks & Wildlife Commission says in this fact sheet on the feral cat:
Feral cats occupy all habitats ranging from rainforest to desert throughout the Northern Territory. Occupation by cats of arid regions has apparently been facilitated by their ability to survive without drinking. They have efficient kidneys and obtain most of their moisture requirements from the live prey they consume.
Feral cats are a serious threat to biodiversity conservation in Australia. Predation by feral cats is appropriately listed as a key threatening process under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Feral cats can potentially impact upon native fauna in three ways: through direct predation, through competition and/or through disease.
Strong evidence suggests that feral cats have played a significant role in the demise and extinction of native fauna, particularly in central Australia. To date, 63 species of native vertebrate have been identified in the stomach contents of feral cats from throughout the Northern Territory including mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians.
And while the impact of feral cats has been difficult to quantify, indications are that their impact is devastating – though largely unseen. As John Pickrell noted in this piece in Australian Geographic earlier this year:
The startling conclusion is that cats are the biggest human-linked cause of death for native animals in the US, with a bigger impact than habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution and collisions with cars – all regarded as more pressing conservation issues.
No such large studies have been made of the impact of cats in Australia. But the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), which runs private conservation reserves across the nation, released a report in December which estimated the impact of the 5-18 million feral cats on native species such as bilbies and numbats.
Each cat takes 5-30 animals a night, says the AWC, so (using a conservative population estimate of 15 million) they conclude that a minimum of 75 million native animals are killed daily. In a country struggling to conserve its unique fauna, the scale of this figure should not be underestimated.
One part of the Northern Territory where the feral cat is being targeted is the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) just to the west and south of Kakadu National Park. The Warddeken work in an area of more than 13,00 sqare kilometres. As this IPA fact sheet notes, the Warddeken IPA area:
… is globally significant for its natural and cultural values. The area is home to dozens of endemic plants, a host of threatened species and possibly a new and unique ecological community – sandstone heathlands.
Threatened species include the bustard, northern quoll, black wallaroo, the Arnhem Land rock-rat and the Oenpelli python. Thousands of individual occupation and rock art sites are also found here. Stunning rock paintings tell the creation stories. Others record the way Aboriginal people lived tens of thousands of years ago and some the first contact with Europeans. Together Kakadu National Park and the Arnhem Land plateau have the greatest number of rock art sites in the world.
Warddeken’s traditional owners have always maintained their relationship to their country through ongoing occupation and traditional land management, despite depopulation from the 1940s to 1960s. A number of clans of the Bininj Kunwok language group are the area’s traditional owners. Bininj ownership of the area is recognised under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
The Indigenous rangers work on a variety of projects including weed and feral animal control and traditional fire management. Passing on traditional ecological knowledge to younger generations is an important ranger role. Warddeken Land Management has successfully developed with industry an innovative carbon abatement partnership and is engaging in collaborative scientific research to position itself for entry into a future biodiversity credit scheme.
Earlier this year Warddeken took drastic action in order to reduce the effect of feral cats on their country, with Dean Yibarbuk telling the local NT News that:
… the cats grew to about 20kg. This is about the same weight as a five-year-old boy. He said the cats were getting bigger, with “several thousand” in the Warddeken area of central Arnhem Land.
Earlier this year the Warddeken IPA rangers announced they were seeking a specially trained ‘catting dog’ to address the increased population of feral cats in the IPA area.
Warddeken IPA Research manager Georgia Vallance told the ABC that funding from the National Environmental Research Program will complement the ranger groups’ culling activities.
“We’ve been noticing more feral cats here over the last few years, and when these cats are culled by the rangers they perform a gut analysis, and the amount of animals inside these cats is staggering. “One that was culled had the remains of two sugar gliders, a velvet gecko, a bird and some insects… so that’s just one cat, over one day,