Threatened species given lifeline by new bait developed to kill feral cats

West Australian researchers spent 10 years developing bait of poison mixed with kangaroo mince and chicken fat to appeal to notoriously fussy feline palates

Gilbert's potoroo

New baits targeting feral cats could aid the recovery of 53 threatened species covered under Western Australia’s largest conservation project, according to the state’s environment minister, Albert Jacob.

The West Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife has spent more than 10 years developing baits to appeal to the notoriously fussy palate of cats.

The end result of this effort is a successful sausage of kangaroo mince and chicken fat, with flavour enhancer. The department says the bait, when laced with 1080 poison, led to the death of 70-80% of feral cats in trials.

The so-called Eradicat baits were registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority in December. They will be deployed in areas that have been targeted for fox baiting since 1996 as part of the Western Shield program, which covers 3.9m hectares of national park and conservation areas.

“If we can take both foxes and cats out of the equation we are confident we can see not only the good recovery rates that we have seen to this point, but in some species perhaps even exponential rates,” Jacob said.

Among the species being protected are the bilby, numbat and Gilbert’s potoroo.

Jacob said species such as the woylie, or brush-tailed bettong, had already shown they had the capacity to recover once their main predator was removed.

“When we were able to remove those fox predators we saw a rapid recovery in the woylie population, to the extent that the woylie was actually de-listed as an endangered animal,” he said.

“Subsequent to that cats have filled the void left by foxes as predators, and woylies were re-listed as critically endangered in 2013.”

Jacob said feral cats had reduced the woylie population from 200,000 down to below 20,000.

David Algar, senior research scientist with the Department of Parks and Wildlife who was on the team that developed the baits, said 1080 poison was particularly successful in Western Australia because the native animals had evolved a natural resistance.

1080 is sodium fluroacetate, which is found in a type of plants called gastrolobium or “poison peas” that grow in south-west Western Australia.

But organisations such as the World League for the Protection of Animals are campaigning to ban 1080, saying it is a cruel poison that takes between 21 and 44 hours to kill.

Algar said there had been extensive research to see if the baits posed a risk to native species.

“Most of them have a high tolerance to 1080 anyway, so most of the non-target species are not threatened by this bait,” he said.

That may not be the case on the east coast of Australia, where the inbuilt resistance to 1080 among native animals is lower. Algar said WA was working with the Victorian and federal governments on another type of feral cat bait called Curiosity for use in those areas.

He said the baits were a breakthrough because there were “no previous methods” to target cats.


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