Feral cats, the most irksome invasive species of the Australian continent, have directly contributed to the decline and extinction of numerous native Australian species.
Feral cats became the enemy number one when it comes to protecting the roughly 400 species that are considered endangered or vulnerable in Australia. Their widespread coverage on the continent is higher than the internet: while about 85.1 percent of the country has access to the internet, feral cats cover 99.8 percent of Australian landmass, with a density of 1 cat per every square kilometer, according to a new report published in the journal “Biological Conservation”.
The study, that brings together data pulled from 100 different researches led by a team 40 leading environmental scientists, estimates the total number of feral cats in Australia is somewhere between 2.1 and 6.3 million. Their population depends on the availability of prey and the estimates include only true feral cats and not typical stray alley cats that have been socialized to people, mnn.com reports.
The threat that feral cats pose was recognized by the Australian scientists long time ago, particularly due to their direct contribution to the decline and extinction of dozens of indigenous species including the bilby, a desert-dwelling marsupial, and the numbat, also known as the banded anteater.
Aussie native wildlife that has existed for centuries without the threat of felines is now even more vulnerable. An extensive study conducted in 2015 revealed that domestic cats first arrived in Australia in the early to mid 19th century aboard European ships as household pets with a highly convenient ability for pest control. But it didn’t take long for stray cats to multiple in the continent’s growing coastal population hubs and, from there, feral cats followed, rapidly spreading across the continent to the vast and sparsely populated inland areas.
Feral cats aren’t wild cats
From a scientific standpoint, the millions of cats from Australia that responsible for hunting and killing on average seven animals every day, from birds to rodents or small marsupials, are domestic cats through and through. Still, because of their complete lack of interaction with humans or due to the very sporadic interplay they ended up to exhibit wild behaviors.
As the new findings show, Australia’s feral cat densities are highest on small islands that have yet to eradicate existing populations. Feral cats Down Under can be found in pretty much every type of habitat, no matter how extreme, although they do prefer inland areas with minimal rainfall over damper coastal regions.
Researchers found also that feral cat densities were the same both inside and outside of established Australian conservation reserves like national parks that protect native species.
Moreover, their number is also high in Australian cities, where they live between humans while having little or no interaction with them. In urbanized areas, the density of feral cats is thought to be 30 times greater than in undeveloped areas where they have adapted over time to impossibly harsh conditions.
“At the moment feral cats are undermining the efforts of conservation managers and threatened species recovery teams across Australia,” Dr. Sarah Legge, a researcher at the University of Queensland, told in a press release. “As well as preying on the threatened species that occur in and near urban areas, these urban feral cats may provide a source of feral cats to bushland areas.”
Scientists urged feral cats’ mass eradication
Given that the new research shows their large widespread across Australia, scientists were determined to continue to push for quick, effective and humane means of mass eradication. According to Gregory Andrews, Australia’s inaugural Threatened Species Commissioner with the Department of Environment and Energy, feral cats have served as a “major contributor” to the extinction of at least 27 native animals. The former diplomat whose position entails raising “awareness and support for Australia’s fight against extinction” said that the report “reaffirms the importance of ambitious targets to cull feral cats.”
“This new science shows that the density of feral cats in Australia is lower than it is in North America and Europe, and yet feral cats have been devastating for our wildlife”, he said according to The Guardian.
Back in 2015, Greg Hunt, former environment minister, announced a five-year plan to eradicate 2 million cats in order to protect Australia’s shrunken native wildlife, but he faced vehement opposition to numerous animal activists, including Brigitte Bardot and singer-songwriter Morrissey, who criticized the government’s “war on feral cats.”