Australia is one of the most ecologically astounding, yet fragile, places on Earth. Isolated for hundreds of thousands of years, the continent has had time to evolve some of the wildest and most bizarre species you can think of: this is the home of the platypus, after all, and the kangaroo. The continent spent much of its life undisturbed except by Indigenous Australians, who lived a very low-impact lifestyle in harmony with their surroundings.
Until Europeans arrived, bringing with them a host of invasive plant and animal species. Those species spread quickly across the environment, and while they might have felt like the comfort of home to colonists, they were incredibly destructive for native flora and fauna.
Today, the Australian government and conservation organizations are struggling to undo the damage and preserve species that are living close to the brink, and some of the means they’re using are extremely aggressive.
Foxes and cats are two animals who have long been fingered as big players in the destruction of small animals like bandicoots. The argument goes that these introduced animals have thrived in the Australian environment without natural predators, with numbers booming due to lack of controls. Consequently, they’re hunting out any small game they can find and devastating Australia’s native animal populations, a claim supported by camera trap footage and surveys.
Acting on that information, the government has used a number of aggressive eradication campaigns. Tens of thousands of cats and foxes have been rounded up and slaughtered in the name of conserving native species, with conservationists in Australia expressing deep loathing for the invaders. Yet, the larger problem of dwindling native species continues, and that’s because the situation here is, as always, more complicated than it might appear on the surface.
For one thing, as experts dealing with invasive species overruns in other regions can testify, roundups and slaughters aren’t enough. It’s necessary to put real checks on the numbers of animals that are becoming a problem, and that means, yes, birth control.
Trap, neuter, and release programs are one option, allowing animals to live out their natural lives in the environment without breeding. Another is the introduction of chemical birth control, as well as measures to discourage invaders from the area.
More to the point, in Australia, these hated invaders are actually playing a vital ecological role. Conservationists had long accepted that cats and foxes were bad news, but no one had actually conducted a study to take a look at the real numbers and see who, or what, was killing the most native species. What they found is that the black rat is a serious contender, and guess what?
Foxes and cats both prey on the black rat. In fact, they’re keeping the rat population in check, which is helping to actively conserve native Australian species that are vulnerable to the rats when they’re on the prowl. When researchers compared islands with and without introduced predators, they didn’t notice a big difference in extinction rates with cats, foxes and dingoes around, but black rats could decimate native populations.
The data don’t mean that it’s time to start throwing cats at areas that don’t have them yet, but they do suggest this particular situation needs a closer evaluation…and that maybe it’s time to stop ruthlessly slaughtering Australia’s poor fox and cat populations.
Photo: Kevin Dooley.