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3,000 Feral Cats Killed to Protect Rare Australian Bilbies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Australia has a feral cat problem. Cats and other invasive predators have driven dozens of the country’s native bird, reptile and small mammal species into extinction, and continue to threaten several others. So many feral felines roam the country that the government often traps, shoots or poisons the animals in order to control populations.

greater bilbyMost recently 3,000 feral cats were shot during a 16-day period in Queensland to keep them away from a 29-square-kilometer sanctuary designed to protect the endangered greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), a defenseless, one-kilogram marsupial that looks like a cross between a mouse and a rabbit, although it is related to neither. Greater bilbies, the last surviving species of their genus, could once be found across most of Australia. Predation by invasive foxes and feral cats took a deadly toll on the species, which also encountered new competition for food and habitat from invasive rabbits. Today only about 600 to 700 remain in the wild. The only other Macrotis species, the lesser bilby, was driven into extinction in the 1950s by the same invasive fauna.

To help save the greater bilbies from the same fate, the Save the Bilby Fund built the Queensland sanctuary back in 2001. The initial construction trapped a large number of predators inside the fence—something they expected to happen—so the organization spent the next few years clearing them out to ensure that the new habitat would be safe, although numerous predators remained outside its gates. The first four bilbies were placed in the sanctuary in 2005, where they quickly started breeding. Within a few years that number had increased to more than 100.

Unfortunately, the sanctuary is located in a relatively remote region of Currawinya National Park. Flooding in the park not only makes the sanctuary occasionally unreachable by humans, it also apparently damaged the fence last June, allowing several cats to make their way into the enclosure, with devastating results. “We estimated we could have had around 150 newborn bilbies inside that fence, and [the cats have] cleared the lot out,” Frank Manthey, co-founder of the Save the Bilby Fund, told the Australian network news show 7.30.

The fence has since been repaired, but Manthey says the surrounding countryside is still besieged by feral cats and has appealed to the government for help in reducing their numbers. Feral cat populations have actually risen in the past two years, an unintended side effect of government efforts to control dingo populations. Dingoes, which compete with cats and other predators for food, have been poisoned to protect agricultural sheep, but Griffith University researcher Jean-Marc Hero told The Australian last September that this approach gave cats and foxes a chance to fill the ecological gap the dingoes left behind.

And if the losses at the sanctuary weren’t bad enough, the worldwide economic crisis has also had an impact on bilbies. The Save the Bilby Fund lost one of its major sponsors about the same time that the sanctuary fence was breached when the chocolate retailer Darrell Lea went belly-up. Darrell Lea raised about $50,000 for the fund each year by selling candy bilbies instead of the traditional chocolate rabbits.

Although it is unclear when the Queensland sanctuary will be restocked with bilbies, other efforts continue to protect the species. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy operates a similar, 8,000-hectare fenced-in property in New South Wales that contains bilbies as well as five other threatened species. That site is patrolled every other day to make sure its fence remains secure. Elsewhere, the Dreamworld theme park on Queensland’s Gold Coast recently celebrated the first captive birth of triplet bilbies, part of a breeding effort that could eventually be used to boost wild populations.

That’s not the only good news. Manthey told 7.30 that he has found a new chocolate manufacturer, Melbourne’s Fyna Foods, which has rushed new chocolate bilbies to their stores just in time for this year’s Easter season. Fyna made an initial $10,000 donation to the bilby fund at the beginning of March. That still leaves the organization well behind its fund-raising needs—but it’s a start.

Photo by Richard Fisher. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Rev.Corvette 6:15 pm 03/28/2013

    Those Rare Australian Bilbies sure are cute, and it is their natural habitat. A bit late to try a spay & neuter campaign… Still it’s a shame to have to kill so many Feral Cats. I must not let the wife see this article.

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  2. 2. everythingcomesback 7:28 pm 03/28/2013

    This is absolutely appalling. I am shocked that they would kill 3,000 innocent cats to save 600 innocent mice.

    Un-freaking-believable. Since when is it morally OK to kill thousands of one species in order to save another? It’s not like they were eating the cats for food, using them for clothing, entertainment, medical research, or pets. They just flat-out poisoned, shot, or otherwise killed them.

    What a bunch of sick, twisted people. It’s a mouse. If it goes extinct because of cats, that’s what nature wanted. Cats eat mice. Mice eat insects. Should we kill all the mice so we can save the crickets and spiders? How far do we go? Should we kill the crickets and spiders to save the tiny little bugs they eat? What about humans? Who’s going to protect the cats from being killed by the humans?

    All I know is that anyone involved in this or any similar on-going massacre will surely face the effects of Karma. Unfortunately, there is no action to take directly. Your awareness alone is action enough. Thanks for reading.

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  3. 3. scientific earthling 7:36 pm 03/28/2013

    I live at the foot of the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney and see first hand what cats do to any creature smaller than themselves, and its not because they are hungry, they get great pleasure causing pain, not too unlike many humans.

    Cats are an imported feral pest in Oz and need to be exterminated. Time to start enforcing mandatory population control measures on humans too.

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  4. 4. elizabettac123 11:11 pm 03/28/2013

    Feral cats are only there because of humans, so humans need to remedy the problem they caused. It’s not just Australia either – feral cats have been introduced and become invasive species in every country and are causing native birds and wildlife all over the planet to go extinct. Perhaps cat lovers would be happy if there were no living creatures on the planet except starving feral cats – since once they’ve killed everything their own size or smaller, they will all starve to death.

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  5. 5. Fanandala 4:42 am 03/29/2013

    Are you being sarcastic of just idiotic? If you can not right the wrong that feral cats present, then I hope the fleas of a thousand feral cats suck the last drop of blood out of you. Now that would be karma.

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  6. 6. gentle lemur 8:03 am 03/29/2013

    Feral cats are a menace in so many places around the world. I guess only rats have been more destructive to native fauna.

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  7. 7. Caretaker 4:13 pm 03/29/2013

    What an inhumane, barbaric, way to deal with your feral cats.

    Have you not learned yet that, on a practical level, you cannot kill your way out of controlling feral cats?

    Absolutely disgusting.

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  8. 8. Kirstyetg 8:55 pm 04/2/2013

    For teachers out there, English-to-go’s English language lesson looks at the plight of bilbies in Australia and kiwi birds in New Zealand, the threat that introduced rabbits have on their habitats and the move to replace the rabbit as an Easter symbol.

    “Easter Bunny?
    The Easter Bunny may not always be an Easter icon in Australia and New Zealand, as conservationists remove to replace it with the Bilby or the Kiwi. (Easter, conservation, the rabbit as a pest.)

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  9. 9. artlikker 5:22 am 05/4/2013

    There’s nothing sick or twisted about it:”Analyses from many studies of the stomach contents and scats of feral cats indicate that most prey species fall into the susceptible categories as outlined by Dickman (1996). From these studies, 36 native mammal, 26 bird, 40 reptile, four insect, two fish and one amphibian species
    have been conclusively identified as prey of free-living cats in Australia (Dickman 1996).” Australia has lost more species than any other country over the last 200years. We have to choose between cats(one species)or our own unique species, twelve of which are about to become extinct IF WE DO NOTHING. Karma or no karma. I have worked with scientists and conservation people in the outback. Its hard and thankless work. Lets all think before we criticize from the comfort of out armchairs.

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