Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, Charles Darwin University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University, and Tida Nou, The University of Queensland
Australia is teeming with cats. While cats make great pets, and can bring owners emotional, psychological and health benefits, the animals are a scourge on native wildlife.
Cats kill a staggering 1.7 billion native animals each year, and have played a major role in most of Australia’s 34 mammal extinctions. They continue to pose an extinction threat to at least another 120 species.
A recent parliamentary inquiry into the problem of feral and pet cats in Australia has affirmed the issue is indeed of national significance. The final report, released last week, calls for a heightened, more effective, multi-pronged and coordinated policy, management and research response.
As ecologists, we’ve collectively spent more than 50 years researching Australia’s cat dilemma. We welcome most of the report’s recommendations, but in some areas it doesn’t go far enough, missing major opportunities to make a difference.
The report recommends Australia’s 3.8 million pet cats be subject to night-time curfews. This measure would benefit native nocturnal mammals, but won’t save birds and reptiles, which are primarily active during the day.
Pet cats kill 83 million native reptiles and 80 million native birds in Australia each year. From a wildlife perspective, keeping pet cats contained 24/7 is the only responsible option.
It’s clearly possible: one third of Australian pet cat owners already keep their pets contained all the time.
Stopping pet cats from roaming is also good for the cats, which live longer, safer lives when kept exclusively indoors. It would also substantially reduce the number of people falling ill from cat-dependent diseases each year.
Other strategies for improving pet cat management proposed in the report include pet cat registration, subsidised programs for early age desexing, public education campaigns to promote responsible pet cat ownership, and improving the consistency of rules and legislation nationally.
The report is also unambiguously opposed to “trap-neuter-release” programs, in which un-owned cats in urban areas are desexed and then released. We agree with this finding, as these programs aren’t effective at reducing the population of stray cats, nor preventing those cats from killing wildlife and spreading disease.
One of the inquiry’s flagship recommendations is a national conservation project dubbed “Project Noah”. This would involve an ambitious expansion of Australia’s existing network of reserves free from introduced predators, both on islands and in mainland fenced areas. The reserves provide havens — or a fleet of “arks” — for vulnerable native wildlife.
This measure is vital. 2019 research found Australia has more than 65 native mammal species and subspecies that can’t persist, or struggle to persist, in places with even very low numbers of cats or foxes. This includes the bilby, numbat, quokka, dibbler and black-footed rock wallaby.
Australia already has more than 125 havens, 100 of which are islands. These have prevented 13 mammal species from going extinct, such as boodies and greater stick-nest rats. In total, these havens have protected populations of 40 mammal species susceptible to cats and foxes.
This is a good start, but we need more investment in havens to prevent extinctions. More than 25 species are highly sensitive to cat and fox predation, but aren’t yet protected in the haven network. This includes the central rock-rat, which is more likely than not to become extinct within 20 years without new action.
What’s more, some species, such as the long-nosed potoroo, exist in just one haven. To avoid issues such as inbreeding and to ensure disasters like a fire at any single haven don’t take out an entire species, each species should be represented across several havens, in reasonable population sizes.
The report didn’t specify how the havens network should be expanded. But 2019 research found to get each species needing protection into at least three havens, Australia requires at least 35 new, strategically located islands or mainland fenced areas.
Havens cover less than 1% of Australia. So what we do in the other 99% of the landscape — including across conservation reserves like national parks — is vital.
Yet the parliamentary inquiry report lacks clear recommendations to expand cat control more broadly, including at important conservation sites such as in Kakadu National Park.
The report reaffirms the need to cull feral cats, and to set new targets for culling, without specifying what those targets are. We agree some culling is important, especially at sites with very vulnerable threatened wildlife.
But in many parts of Australia, broad-scale habitat management is a more cost-effective way to reduce cat harm. This involves making habitat less suitable for cats and more suitable for native wildlife, for example, by reducing rabbit numbers, fire frequency and grazing by feral herbivores such as cattle and horses.
Research has shown fewer rabbits leads to fewer cats. Rabbits are a favoured prey of many cats, so they boost feral cat numbers, which then also hunt native wildlife.
And cats gravitate to areas with less vegetation because it’s easier to catch prey. These areas include those with frequent fires, or where feral herbivores have reduced vegetation through grazing and trampling.
Better habitat with more vegetation gives native animals places to hide from predators, and more food and shelter. It’s a bit like giving the last little pig a house of bricks instead of trying to fist-fight the wolf.
Over the past two decades, Australia has slowly woken up to the damage cats cause to nature. This has led to more research, management and policy to address the problem.
Some state governments, environment groups and scientists have worked hard to develop feral cat control options, and the 2015 Australian Threatened Species Strategy did much to focus national attention and resourcing to the issue.
The parliamentary inquiry is a major step forward, and many recommendations are sound. But overall, its recommendations call for incremental improvement.
Australia’s laws clearly fail to provide a safety net for wildlife. The cat issue is part of a larger problem with how we manage habitat, biodiversity and threats to nature – and fixing that requires wholesale change.
Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University, and Tida Nou, Project officer, The University of Queensland
The guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) is a common amphibian found in much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Angola to Kenya and down to eastern South Africa. With such a wide geographic range, and a liking for living in human-disturbed areas, it’s often seen in people’s backyards. Around gardens it can be thought of as a helpful neighbour, as it is a keen predator of insects and other invertebrates that may try to eat plants. Yet it also has the potential to be ecologically hazardous outside its native range – and this toad is an accomplished invader.
In the Mascarene Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, far from mainland Africa, these toads have been an established invasive species for almost 100 years. In 1922, the director of dock management in Port Louis, Mauritius, deliberately released guttural toads in an attempt to control cane beetles – a pest of the country’s major crop, sugar cane. This attempt at biocontrol failed, but the toads appeared to thrive and rapidly spread across the island.
Mauritius had no native amphibian species for it to compete with, and no native predators with a recent evolutionary history with toads. In mainland Africa these toads would have to divide resources, like food, with a host of native amphibians and deal with an array of native birds, mammals and snakes that evolved feeding on them. But without these challenges on Mauritius, the toads colonised the entire island rapidly.
Most toads are generalist predators and hunt a wide variety of prey, more or less eating whatever they can fit in their mouth. So as the guttural toad’s population numbers grew through the decades, so too did the concerns from Mauritian ecologists about the impact on native fauna. Anecdotal accounts as early as the 1930s suggest that the toads were having a negative impact on endemic invertebrate populations. In fact it has been suggested that the toads may have been a driver in the decline, and possible extinction, of endemic carabid beetles and snails.
But it’s only recently that the toad’s diet in Mauritius has been examined closely. In our new study we examined the stomach contents of 361 toads collected in some of the last remaining native forests of Mauritius.
By knowing more about what species the toads are eating, and which groups they favour, our research may help inform toad control actions to protect areas with known sensitive species.
Through our research we were able to identify almost 3,000 individual prey items, encompassing a wide variety of invertebrates like insects, woodlice, snails, spiders, millipedes and earthworms.
This research also went one step further to examine the prey preference of the toads. In general, they seemed to favour, some of the more abundant and common prey species. These included ants and woodlice, which made up about two-thirds of their overall diet.
These findings may suggest that the toads were able to identify a readily available food source, and this may have fuelled their invasive population growth. Yet they are also eating prey that represents a more serious conservation concern.
Inside the toads we found 13 different species of native snail, most of which were island endemics. Four species are listed as being vulnerable to extinction and one, Omphalotropis plicosa, being critically endangered – having been presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in 2002. Understandably, we found it very troubling to find a “Lazarus species” within the stomach of an invasive predator.
These early insights into the native species now being hunted by a widespread and voracious predator raise new research questions. To understand the greater impact the toads are having on native species much more work is required to understand their prey’s population dynamics so we can determine if the toad’s invertebrate “harvest” is contributing to declines.
Furthermore, how does the toad’s invasive diet in Mauritius compare with that of other invasive populations, like those in Réunion or Cape Town – is their invasive success linked to a common prey type? And how does it compare with their diet in their own native species range?
Our study could only examine what they are eating currently, but Mauritius has seen numerous species decline over the past 100 years. What role did the toad play in these losses? Perhaps they historically fed more readily on creatures that were more abundant in the past, but had to switch their favour to ants and woodlice when the populations of other species dropped. We may never know.
What is clear is that there is much to learn about the habits of this far-from-home amphibian and its impact on the ecosystems it has invaded.
Many of us are aware of the enormous destruction feral cats inflict on Australia’s native wildlife, but there’s another introduced species that will cause at least as much harm if left unmanaged — yet it receives far less attention.
We’re referring to buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), a plant native to parts of Africa and Asia that has been widely introduced elsewhere for pasture and to stabilise soils.
Buffel is fast growing, deep rooted and easy to establish, with each plant producing thousands of seeds. But these very characteristics for which it was prized have caused it to spread much further than ever planned.
We recently published two studies on buffel grass. One looked at just how serious the buffel invasion is to humans and wildlife by comparing it to other high-profile threats such as cats and foxes. The other study found that when buffel was removed, native wildlife quickly bounced back.
Buffel is now one of the worst invaders of dryland ecosystems worldwide. In Australia, this single species has replaced once diverse communities of native grasses and wildflowers across vast tracks of land. For example, most conservation reserves in the southern part of the NT have been invaded, including parts of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Because it grows so thickly, the dense grassy fuel can feed bigger, hotter and sometimes unexpected fires. These new fires are a risk to wildlife, humans and large, old trees.
Our study compared buffel to threats posed by changed fire regimes, feral predators (cats and foxes) and feral herbivores (rabbits and camels). We found buffel was equal to feral cats and foxes in terms of future risk to biodiversity.
Feral cats are currently listed as threatening some 139 species under national environment legislation, including the night parrot and the central rock rat. Each year across Australia, feral cats kill more than three billion animals.
Buffel is formally listed as threatening 27 species under this legislation, such as the floodplain skink (buffel can choke its burrows). But because there has been much less research on the impacts of buffel, this number is likely a significant underestimate.
Unlike cats, buffel impacts whole plant communities and the animals they support. For example, when large old trees are burnt, birds that rely on tree hollows for nesting can no longer breed successfully.
What’s more, buffel has only spread widely in the last 20-30 years, which means its full impact on ecosystems has not yet been realised. In fact, 70% of the Australian continent has suitable conditions for buffel growth and could, in time, become invaded.
In contrast, cats have already roamed Australia for more than 200 years and, tragically, have caused many species, like the lesser stick-nest rat, to become extinct.
Our study found buffel ranked higher than any other environmental threat in terms of its social and cultural impacts for Aboriginal people.
Because buffel is valued as a pasture grass in some regions, much debate has focused on its agro‐economic benefits versus environmental costs.
Meanwhile, the views and values of Aboriginal custodians of inland Australia have remained marginalised. It’s time this changes.
While feral cats and buffel both threaten culturally important wildlife, buffel is also causing the decline of valued plant foods and medicines.
For example, native desert raisin (Solanum centrale) — “katjirra” to Western Arrernte people and “kampuṟarpa” to Pitjantjatjara people — remains an important staple food across central Australia and is part of Australia’s living cultural heritage.
However, it is becoming harder for women to find and collect as buffel takes over country.
Buffel also damages important cultural sites by bringing fire and choking water holes. Thick grass makes it difficult to walk through country and it’s now hard to see tracks or animals.
Together with the loss of species, this inhibits the transfer of cultural knowledge from one generation to another.
Buffel responds well to herbicide in smaller areas, and spread can be slowed or stopped by treating isolated infestations.
For six years, we tracked the response of native plants and animals (particularly lizards) after buffel was treated at six sites in the Tjoritja National Park near Alice Springs. And we found biodiversity soon bounced back.
Following good rains, native plants like billy buttons and golden everlastings that had just been hanging on quickly re-established in areas where buffel was treated. And as native plant communities were restored, a range of lizards and other wildlife returned, too.
Birds such as Australian ring-neck parrots and red-tailed black-cockatoos began to selectively use the treated areas, foraging on seeds on the more open ground.
Ants also became much more abundant and diverse where buffel was removed. Ants play an important role in ecosystems, for example, by dispersing seeds. This has likely been diminished in buffel-occupied areas.
Importantly, while research demonstrates the potential for ecosystem recovery following effective control, the negative effects of buffel on fauna increased in areas where we did nothing.
The findings from both our studies underline the urgent need for management on a much larger scale than what is currently possible, and prevention of further spread.
It’s clear a nationally coordinated response is required, along with policies that support positive local initiatives.
Creating and maintaining large buffel-free sanctuaries in areas not yet invaded could help to protect biodiversity in the future. But we found the cost of maintaining these could be an estimated 40–50 times more than other pest-free sanctuaries, if restricted to current methods of control.
This is why Australia needs new, cost-effective, culturally appropriate and safe control options, rolled out on a broad scale. We stress the need for Aboriginal people from regions affected by buffel and prone to invasion to be central to discussions and the development of solutions.
It’s also important to note controlling buffel doesn’t require its eradication from pastoral regions where it’s valued. It does, however, require a national commitment and dedicated research, with strategic, coordinated and committed action.
Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University; Ellen Ryan-Colton, PhD candidate, Charles Darwin University; Jennifer Firn, Professor, Queensland University of Technology, and John Read, Associate Lecturer, Ecology and Environmental Sciences
Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland; John Read; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Pat Taggart, and Tida Nou, The University of Queensland
Toxoplasmosis, cat roundworm and cat scratch disease are caused by pathogens that depend on cats — pets or feral — for part of their life cycle. But these diseases can be passed to humans, sometimes with severe health consequences.
In our study published today in the journal Wildlife Research, we looked at the rates of these diseases in Australia, their health effects, and the costs to our economy.
Based on findings from a large number of Australian and international studies, Australian hospital data and information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we estimate many thousands of people in Australia fall ill or sustain a minor injury as a result of cat-dependent diseases each year.
Our estimations suggest more than 8,500 Australians are hospitalised and about 550 die annually from causes linked to these diseases.
We calculated the economic cost of these pathogens in Australia at more than A$6 billion per year based on the costs of medical care for affected people, lost income from time off work, and other related expenses.
Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It’s the most serious cat-dependent disease.
Humans become infected when they ingest these oocysts, which are in the soil and dust in places where cats have defecated, especially sandpits, vegetable gardens or kitty litter.
Humans can also become infected from eating undercooked meat, if those farm animals have come into contact with cat-shed oocysts.
Once infected, about 10% of people develop illness; the other 90% have no symptoms.
Based on overall infection rates and Australia’s population size, we estimate there are more than 125,000 new infections in Australia each year.
Of these, around 12,500 people get sick, mostly with non-specific, flu-like symptoms that resolve within a couple of weeks; 650 require hospitalisation, and 50 die, with these more serious cases often experiencing brain swelling and neurological symptoms.
People with compromised immune systems, such as those with cancer or HIV, are at highest risk.
More than 20%, or about 50 of these babies, will have symptoms that require life-long care, including impaired vision or hearing, and intellectual disabilities. Another 90 babies will develop symptoms, usually related to vision or hearing, later in life.
Even if the initial infection causes little illness, the T. gondii parasite stays with us for life, encased in a cyst, often in the brain. These “latent” infections may affect our mental health and behaviour, such as delaying our reaction times.
Many studies have found people with T. gondii infection are more likely to have a car accident. A review of several studies found if there were no T. gondii infections, car accident rates would theoretically be 17% lower.
T. gondii infections also appear more common in people with mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, and in people who attempt suicide. Reviews across many studies suggest that without T. gondii infections, there could be 10% fewer suicides and 21% fewer schizophrenia diagnoses.
There’s still debate over whether the parasite causes car accidents and mental health disorders, or whether the association is explained by another shared factor. But it is possible T. gondii infection is a risk factor for these issues, in the same way smoking is a risk factor for heart attacks.
If we accept T. gondii infections do increase the risk of car accidents, suicides and schizophrenia, then considering the incidence of these accidents and health issues in Australia, without T. gondii, we estimate we could potentially avoid:
200 deaths and 6,500 hospitalisations due to car accidents
300 suicides and 4,500 suicide attempts
800 schizophrenia diagnoses each year.
Combining deaths from car accidents and suicide with the 50 deaths from acute toxoplasmosis, we reach a total of 550 deaths related to T. gondii infection per year.
The hospitalisation total for T. gondii includes 650 for acute toxoplasmosis, 50 for congenitally infected babies, 6,500 for car accidents, and 800 for schizophrenia. We didn’t include hospitalisations for suicide attempts, as we didn’t have statistics on that. So this could be a conservative estimate, notwithstanding the fact there are other factors involved in car accidents and mental health issues.
Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection (Bartonella henselae) that people can contract if bitten or scratched by an infected cat.
Typical symptoms include sores, fevers, aches and swollen glands. But more serious symptoms, such as inflammation of heart tissue, cysts in the organs and loss of vision, can also occur.
Prevalence figures are not available in Australia, but based on rates in the United States and Europe, where cat ownership patterns and cat infection rates are similar, we estimate at least 2,700 Australians get sick annually from cat scratch disease, and 270 are hospitalised.
Cat roundworm is a parasitic infection (Toxocara cati) that people and other animals can contract by accidentally consuming the parasite’s egg, which infected cats shed in their poo.
Most cat roundworm infections cause mild symptoms, but the migration of the larvae through the body can cause tissue damage, which can be serious if it occurs in a place like the eye or heart.
There are no human vaccines for these diseases. Treatment for T. gondii infection in cats isn’t considered useful because cats usually shed the oocysts without the owner even realising the cat has the parasite. Cats can be treated to rid them of roundworm, but treatment for B. henselae (the bacteria that causes cat scratch) may not be effective.
But if you’re a cat owner, there are some things you can do. Keeping pet cats indoors or in a securely contained outdoor area could reduce the chance your pet will contract or pass on a disease-causing pathogen.
Cats should be kept out of veggie gardens and children’s sandpits. Washing hands after handling kitty litter and gardening, and washing vegetables thoroughly, can also reduce the risk of transmission.
As T. gondii can be contracted from infected meat, cooking meat well before eating, and not feeding raw meat to pets, can also help.
The urban feral cat resevoir could be reduced by preventing access to food sources such as farm sites, rubbish bins and tips. We could do this with improved waste management and fencing.
People shouldn’t feed feral cats, as this can lead to cat colony formation, where infection rates are also higher.
Pet cats should also be desexed to prevent unwanted litters that end up as free-roaming ferals.
These steps would cost us and our pet cats little, but could prevent unnecessary impacts on our health and well-being.
Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University. Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland; John Read, Associate Lecturer, Ecology and Environmental Sciences; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Pat Taggart, Adjunct Fellow, and Tida Nou, Project officer, The University of Queensland
Kaya Klop-Toker, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, University of Newcastle
On an island off the Queensland coast, a battle is brewing over the fate of a small population of goats.
The battle positions the views of some conservation scientists and managers who believe native species must be protected from this invasive fauna, against those of community members who want to protect the goat herd to which they feel emotionally connected. Similar battles colour the management decisions around brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park and cats all over Australia.
These debates show the impact of a new movement called “compassionate conservation”. This movement aims to increase levels of compassion and empathy in the management process, finding conservation solutions that minimise harm to wildlife. Among their ideas, compassionate conservationists argue no animal should be killed in the name of conservation.
But preventing extinctions and protecting biodiversity is unlikely when emotion, rather than evidence, influence decisions. As our recent paper argues, the human experience of compassion and empathy is fraught with inherent biases. This makes these emotions a poor compass for deciding what conservation action is right or wrong.
We are facing a biological crisis unparalleled in human history, with at least 25% of the world’s assessed species at risk of extinction. These trends are particularly bad in Australia, where we have one of the world’s worst extinction records and the world’s highest rate of mammal extinctions.
The federal government recently announced it will commit to a new ten-year threatened species strategy, focused on eradicating feral pests such as foxes and cats.
When you first think about it, this idea sounds great. Why kill some animals to save others?
Well, invasive animals — those either intentionally or accidentally moved to a new location — are one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity.
Fortunately, endangered populations can recover when these pests are removed. Controlling pest numbers is one of the most effective tools available to conservationists.
Killing pests is at stark odds with the “do no harm” values promoted by the compassionate conservation movement.
Compassionate conservationists argue it’s morally wrong to kill animals for management, whereas conservation scientists argue it’s morally wrong to allow species to go extinct — especially if human actions (such as the movement of species to new locations) threaten extinction.
These conflicting moral standpoints result in an emotional debate about when it is justified to kill or let be killed. This argument centres on emotion and moral beliefs. There is no clear right or wrong answer and, therefore, no resolution.
In an attempt to break this emotional stalemate, we explored the biases inherent in the emotions of compassion and empathy, and questioned if increased empathy and compassion are really what conservation needs.
At first, compassion and empathy may appear vital to conservation, and on an individual level, they probably are. People choose to work in conservation because they care for wild species. But compassion and empathy come with strong evolutionary biases.
The first bias is that people feel more empathy toward the familiar — people care more for things they relate most closely to. The second bias is failure to scale-up — we don’t feel 100 times more sorrow when hearing about 100 people dying, compared to a single person (or species).
Evolution has shaped our emotions to peak for things we relate most strongly to, and to taper off when numbers get high — most likely to protect us from becoming emotionally overloaded.
Let’s put these emotions in the context of animal management. Decisions based on empathy and compassion will undoubtedly favour charismatic, relatable species over thousands of less-familiar small, imperilled creatures.
This bias is evident in the battle over feral horses in national parks. There is public backlash over the culling of brumbies, yet there is no such response to the removal of feral pigs, despite both species having similarly negative impacts on protected habitats.
If compassionate conservation is adopted, culling invasive species would cease, leading to the rapid extinction of more vulnerable native species. A contentious example is the race to save the endangered Tristan albatross from introduced mice on Gough Island in the south Atlantic.
Sealers introduced mice in the 1800s, and the mice have adapted to feed on albatross chicks, killing an estimated two million birds per year. Under compassionate conservation, lethal control of the mice would not be allowed, and the albatross would be added to the extinction list within 20 years.
What’s more, compassionate conservation advocates for a more hands-off approach to remove any harm or stress to animals. This means even the management of threatened fauna would be restricted.
Under this idea, almost all current major conservation actions would not be allowed because of temporary stress placed on individual animals. This includes translocations (moving species to safer habitat), captive breeding, zoos, radio tracking and conservation fencing.
With 15% of the world’s threatened species protected in zoos and undergoing captive breeding, a world with compassionate conservation would be one with far fewer species, and we argue, much less conservation and compassion.
In this time of biodiversity crisis and potential ecosystem collapse, we cannot afford to let emotion bias our rationale. Yes, compassion and empathy should drive people to call for more action from their leaders to protect biodiversity. But what action needs to be taken should be left to science and not our emotions.
Kaya Klop-Toker, Conservation Biology Researcher, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, Post-doctoral researcher, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, PhD Candidate in Restoration Ecology, University of Newcastle
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University
Only a few decades ago, encountering a bandicoot or quoll around your campsite in the evening was a common and delightful experience across the Top End. Sadly, our campsites are now far less lively.
Northern Australia’s vast uncleared savannas were once considered a crucial safe haven for many species that have suffered severe declines elsewhere. But over the last 30 years, small native mammals (weighing up to five kilograms) have been mysteriously vanishing across the region.
The reason why the Top End’s mammals have declined so severely has long been unknown, leaving scientists and conservation managers at a loss as to how to stop and reverse this tragic trend.
Our major new study helps unravel this longstanding mystery. We found that the collective influence of feral livestock — such as buffaloes, horses, cattle and donkeys — has been largely underestimated. Even at quite low numbers, feral livestock can have a big impact on our high-value conservation areas and the wildlife they support.
In 2010, Kakadu National Park conducted a pivotal study on Top End mammals. It found that between 1996 and 2009, the number of native mammal species at survey sites had halved, and the number of individual animals dropped by more than two-thirds. Similar trends have since been observed elsewhere across the Top End.
Given the scale and speed of the mammal declines, the need to find effective solutions is increasingly urgent. It has become a key focus of conservation managers and scientists alike.
The list of potential causes includes inappropriate fire regimes, feral cats, cane toads, feral livestock, and invasive weeds.
With limited resources, it’s essential to know which threats to focus on. This is where our study has delivered a major breakthrough.
We looked for patterns of where species have been lost and where they are hanging on. With the help of helicopters to reach many remote areas, we used more than 1,500 “camera traps” (motion-sensor cameras to record mammals) and almost 7,500 animal traps (such as caged traps) to survey 300 sites across the national parks, private conservation reserves and Indigenous lands of the Top End.
We found most parts of the Top End have very few native mammals left. The isolated areas where mammals are persisting have retained good-quality habitat, with a greater variety of plant species and dense shrubs and grasses.
This habitat provides more shelter and food for native mammals, and has fewer cats and dingoes, which hunt more efficiently in open areas. In contrast, sites with degraded habitat have much less food and shelter available, and native mammals are more exposed to predators.
Across northern Australia, habitat quality is primarily driven by two factors: bushfires and introduced livestock, either farmed or feral.
Our surveys revealed that areas with more feral livestock have fewer native mammals. This highlights that the role of feral livestock in the Top End’s mammal declines has previously been underestimated.
Even at relatively low densities, feral livestock are detrimental to small mammals. Through overgrazing and trampling, they degrade habitat and reduce the availability of food and shelter for native mammals.
Frequent, intense fires also play a big role. Australia’s tropical savannas are among the most fire-prone on Earth, but fires that are too frequent, too hot and too extensive remove critical food and shelter.
Yet, even if land managers can manage fires to protect biodiversity, for example by reducing the occurrence of large, intense fires, the presence of feral livestock will continue to impede native mammal recovery.
Cats have helped drive more than 20 Australian mammals to extinction. So it’s not surprising we found fewer native mammals at our sample sites where there were more cats.
However, our results suggest the best way to manage the impact of cats in this region may not be to simply kill cats, which is notoriously difficult across vast, remote landscapes. Instead, it may be more effective to manage habitat better, tipping the balance in favour of native mammals and away from their predators.
The combination of prescribed burning to protect food and shelter resources, and culling feral livestock, might be all that’s needed to support native mammals and reduce the impact of feral cats.
Many scientists have suggested dingoes could also be part of the solution to reducing cat impacts — as cats are believed to avoid dingoes. With this in mind, we explored the relationship between the two predators in this study.
We found no evidence dingoes influenced the distribution of feral cats. In fact, survey sites with more dingoes had fewer native small mammals, suggesting a negative impact by dingoes.
But, unlike cats, culling dingoes is not an option because they provide other important ecological roles, and are culturally significant for Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Australians.
Our study suggests an effective way to halt and reverse Top End mammal losses is to protect and restore habitat. For example, by improving fire management and controlling feral livestock through culling.
It is also very important to conserve the environments that still have high-quality habitat and healthy mammal communities, such as the high-rainfall areas along the northern Australian coast. These areas provide refuge for many of our most vulnerable mammal species.
While there’s more research to be done, it’s crucial we start managing habitat better, before we lose more of our precious mammal species.
The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the support from many Indigenous ranger groups, land managers and Traditional Owners. This includes the Warddeken, Bawinanga, Wardaman and Tiwi rangers, the Traditional Owners and land managers of Kakadu, Garig Gunak Barlu, Judbarra/Gregory, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks, Djelk, Warddeken and Wardaman Indigenous Protected Areas, and Fish River Station and was facilitated by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa Land Councils.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Associate Professor / ARC Future Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University
When I visited Kangaroo Island for the first time after the summer bushfires, I thought I knew what to expect. But what really hit me was the scale.
The wild western end of the island, once a vast mallee woodland peppered with wildflowers and mobs of roaming roos, had been completely erased. An immense dune field covered with sharp blackened sticks now stretched beyond the horizon, to the sea, hollow and quiet.
While fire is a fundamental process in many Australian ecosystems, the size and severity of this fire was extreme, and the impacts on the island’s wildlife has been immense.
For the many threatened species on Kangaroo Island, such as the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, their fight for survival still isn’t over. High numbers of feral cats roaming the landscape now pose a huge threat to their persistence, with little vegetation left within the fire scar to provide cover for wildlife.
In fact, our recent research found there are, on average, almost double the number of cats per square kilometre on Kangaroo Island than on the mainland.
Kangaroo Island is uniquely positioned, home to wildlife native to both eastern and western Australia. It protects nationally threatened species, such as the glossy black-cockatoo, the pygmy copperhead, Rosenberg’s goanna and the Kangaroo Island dunnart.
The recent bushfires on Kangaroo Island were the largest ever recorded there, destroying swathes of habitat. Over a period of 49 days the fire burnt 211,255 hectares, impacting almost half of the island, particularly the western and central regions.
The Kangaroo Island dunnart is a small carnivorous marsupial weighing about 20 grams, with soft sooty fur and dark eyes. The species eats mainly insects, and shelters in hollow logs and in the skirts of grass trees.
Even prior to the fire the species was considered likely to become extinct in the next 20 years. Despite extensive survey efforts, the dunnart had only been seen at 19 sites on Kangaroo Island between 1990 and 2019.
Our own survey work between 2017 and 2018 confirmed the persistence of the dunnart at just six sites in the national park, with Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife detecting several additional records on private land. All sites were in the western half of the island where the recent fires burned.
Many dunnarts are likely to have died in the fire itself, but individuals that survived are left extremely vulnerable to starvation and feral cat predation.
The problem is so large, a parliamentary inquiry is, for the first time in 30 years, investigating the impact of feral and domestic cats to native wildlife.
What’s more, in some areas on Kangaroo Island where the availability of animal carcasses is high, the density of feral cats is more than ten times as high as mainland estimates.
A high cat density poses a formidable threat to wildlife survival during the post-fire period, because cats will sometimes travel large distances to hunt within recent fire scars. Research is underway on the island to examine exactly how the fires have changed cat densities and hunting behaviour in and around burnt areas.
Controlling feral cats is one of the biggest challenges in Australian conservation. Cats are cryptic and cautious, hard to find, see, trap and remove.
Despite the challenge, a large-scale feral cat eradication is underway on Kangaroo Island. This is the largest island on which cat eradication has ever been attempted, and the project will take years.
In the meantime, feral cats are being controlled around the last refuges for Kangaroo Island dunnarts. There are multiple methods for this including shooting and cage trapping, but in remote areas that are hard to access, poison-baiting is likely to be an effective, long-term strategy.
Most feral cat baits are meat-based, but our research shows possums and bush rats are still likely to consume them.
Therefore, researchers have worked for many years on strategies to minimise the potential impacts of feral cat baits on native wildlife. For example, the poison can be delivered within a hard plastic pellet, inside the meat bait.
Field trials have indicated that while cats swallow portions of this bait whole, ingesting the pellet, most native wildlife will chew around and discard the pellet.
Despite the gravity of the risk to Kangaroo Island wildlife, there is hope. A huge, dedicated and effective survey effort by both government and non-government organisations has resulted in the detection of Kangaroo Island dunnarts at more than 22 sites.
These small populations have been found mostly within patches of unburnt vegetation, but also – almost unbelievably – in areas that have been completely burnt.
Many of these populations appear to be very small and isolated. And now, more than ever, they’re extremely vulnerable. Targeted cat control and/or protection of vulnerable populations with exclusion fencing may be the only way to prevent their extinction.
By controlling cats, we can help native species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart get through this difficult time, and continue to fulfil their place in that wild landscape for years to come.
The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Paul Jennings, Pat Hodgens, Heidi Groffen, James Smith and Trish Mooney, for their generous contributions to this article.
This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.
On a coastal holiday last summer, I was preoccupied. Bushfires were tearing through southeast Australia, and one in particular had me worried. Online maps showed it moving towards the last remaining population of a plucky little fish, the stocky galaxias.
I’ve worked in threatened fish conservation and management for more than 35 years, but this species is special to me.
The stocky galaxias was formally described as a new species in 2014. Its only known population lives in a short stretch of stream in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. A single event could wipe them out.
On January 2 the bushfires forced my family and I to evacuate our holiday home. As we returned to Canberra, I was still worried. Fire maps showed the stocky’s stream virtually surrounded by fire.
A few days later, I prepared for an emergency rescue.
The stocky galaxias is the monarch of its small stream; the only fish species present. I’ve been trying to protect the stocky galaxias before it was even formally recognised.
Over the last century or more, the species has seen off threats from predatory trout, storms, droughts and bushfires. Snowy 2.0 is the latest danger.
It’s listed as critically endangered in NSW and is being assessed for a federal threatened listing. Before the fires, there were probably no more than 1,000-2,000 adults left in the wild.
As the fires burned, I knew we had to move quickly. I wanted to collect up to 200 stocky galaxias and take them away for safekeeping.
Rainfall after bushfires is major threat to fish, because it washes ash and sediment into streams. Storms were forecast for the afternoon of January 15. So early that morning, myself and two colleagues, escorted by two staff from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, drove to the stocky galaxias stream.
A colleague and I waded in and began electrofishing. This involved passing an electrical current through water, stunning fish momentarily so we could catch them.
After 45 minutes we’d collected 68 healthy stocky galaxias. Woohoo! Further downstream we collected 74 more. By now, fire burned along the stream edge. We packed the fish into drums in the back of my car and drove out.
We headed to the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ trout hatchery at Jindabyne, where we measured each fish and took a genetic sample. I felt immensely relieved and satisfied that we’d potentially saved a species from extinction.
The fish have been thriving in the hatchery building. Stocky galaxias have never been kept in captivity before, but our years of field work told us the temperatures they encountered in the wild, so holding tanks could be set up appropriately.
The captive fish can be used for breeding, but the species has never been captive-bred before and this is not a trivial task.
When they’re reintroduced to the wild, the sites must be free of trout, and other invasive fish like climbing galaxias. Natural or artificial barriers should be in place to prevent invasive fish invasion.
In late March I finally got back to the stocky galaxias’ stream to see whether they’d survived. At the lower stretch of its habitat, the fire was not severe and the stream habitat looked good, with only a small amount of ash and sediment.
Upstream, the fire had been more severe. At the edge of the stream, heath was razed and patches of sphagnum moss were burnt. Again, sediment in the stream was not too abundant. But fish numbers were lower than normal, suggesting some there had not survived.
The stocky galaxias species might have survived yet another peril, but the battle isn’t over.
Feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park have increased dramatically in the last decade. They’ve degraded the banks of the stocky galaxias’ stream, making it wider and shallower and filling sections with fine sediment. This smothers the fish’s food resources, spawning sites and eggs.
Before the fires, plans were already afoot to fence off much of the stocky galaxias habitat to keep horses out. Fire damage to the park has delayed construction until early 2021.
The biggest long-term threat to the species is the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro development. It threatens to transfer an invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, to within reach of stocky galaxias habitat. There, it would compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.
Despite this risk, in May this year the NSW government approved the Snowy 2.0 expansion, with approval conditions that I believe fail to adequately protect the stocky galaxias population. The project has also received federal approval.
The stocky galaxias is unique and irreplaceable. I want my grandchildren to be able to show their grandchildren this little Aussie battler thriving in the wild.
The damage wrought by Snowy 2.0 may not be apparent for several decades. By then many politicians and bureaucrats now deciding the future of the stocky galaxias will be gone, as will I.
But 2020 will go down in history as the year the species was saved from fire, then condemned to possible extinction.