Habitat destruction is by far the biggest threat to endangered species in Australia, but while this goes on unabated, the Environment Minister calls for yet another war on cats, writes Linda Paull.
What is surprising is that we haven’t learned from previous efforts that an all-out war on one species, even one that is commonly referred to as “feral”, will not solve Australia’s extinction crisis. Nobody is saying that cats aren’t predators or that, especially in some areas, aren’t contributing to species decline. But let’s face it, cats seem to be disproportionately blamed for a disturbing trend that is turning Australia into a pariah in the eyes of the world — species extinction.
Since colonisation, 100 of Australia’s endemic species has been driven to extinction. And yet, we continually fail to acknowledge the major cause behind it — habitat destruction caused by changes in land use, the vast majority of which is driven by agriculture.
When the First Fleet arrived, Australia was a land rich in plant and animal life, and our Indigenous people had a ready source of food that was perfectly adapted to the soil and harsh climate.
But European colonisers believed that they shouldn’t need to adapt their ways to suit the environment. The environment had to be adapted to suit their tastes and customs and so the pastoral industry was born, and traditional land management was all but eliminated in favour of grazing.
Pastoralisation for sheep and cattle is now the dominant land use throughout much of Australia, accounting for almost half the country’s total land mass. It brings with it a legacy of excessive land clearing, habitat destruction and persecution of native animals whose rights to exist are constantly challenged by those who claim they are pests for merely existing within a shotgun’s or bulldozer’s range of the nearest sheep or cattle station.
And as habitats become increasingly fragmented, native animal populations become more vulnerable to introduced species, whose ability to thrive in fragmented environments far outweighs the ability of native animals who depend on that habitat to thrive.
And what are we doing to curb this? Nothing. That would mean facing the uncomfortable truth that we might just be the problem. And we might have to change our ways.
So, let’s deflect the problem by declaring war on cats instead. That’s easy. It doesn’t ask anything of Labor or Liberal voters (besides keeping Fluffy indoors for extended periods) and it doesn’t upset the agricultural lobby groups that pour millions into the major parties’ coffers.
Never mind that we’ve been declaring war on a range of species since we set foot on the continent and it hasn’t achieved much. Never mind that former Environment Minister Greg Hunt declared his own war on cats in 2015, despite the fact that there was no scientific justification for the 2 million cats targeted. And never mind that the science behind cat culling is shaky and that previous attempts at cat culling have actually resulted in more cats.
According to Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries biologist Billie Lazenby, cat culling can do more harm than good. She discovered this after an attempt at cat culling carried out in southern Tasmania reportedly resulted in an increase in the target cat population of between 75-200%. It turns out that top cats, while they may feed on smaller animals, also protect their territory by keeping other cats away and starving them out. By removing them, you create a vacuum into which other cats can enter.
Researchers from Deakin University, the University of NSW and James Cook University suggested that one solution is the re-introduction of dingoes. Dingoes not only prey on cats, they also scare them away from certain areas and they do it for free. But no. Farmers don’t like them either. They are another native species persecuted because they have become a “problem” for the pastoral sector to the point where farmers even lobbied the various governments to have them labelled wild dogs, which thereby should not be afforded protection.
So why are we so hell-bent on persecuting animals while not taking the blame for our own contributions? This was a question Dr Fiona Probyn-Rapsey posed in her 2017 talk, ‘Extinct and Eradicated – Animal States of Australia’, where she made the poignant point that eradication programs are built on a set of cultural values, all of which are based on the premise that we are never the problem.
“Colonialism causes extinctions and then mounts eradication campaigns to counter the extinctions it causes. Make it clear who the pest is. The pest is never us.”
It’s this mentality that led to the recent decisions to reintroduce shark nets on NSW beaches, dingo culls in Victoria and refuse to outlaw duck shooting. Factor in lobby groups and the cosy relationship they have with the major parties, and the situation is worse.
Are cats responsible for approving the gas project in the Pilliga, logging land in the proposed Great Koala National Park, conducting seismic blasts in the oceans or logging precious old growth forests?
No. These are all perfect examples of big industry-bankrolled government initiatives that have been ushered in by the major parties with little political will to stop them and will have a catastrophic effect on our wildlife.
Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of land clearing, which has recently increased in some regions. For instance, clearing of native vegetation in New South Wales rose by 800 per cent between 2013 and 2016. Is land clearing one of the top priorities of the Threatened Species Strategy 2022-2023? No. It’s cats, foxes and even gamba grass that are the main offenders.
Of course, Australia needs to do more to protect our threatened species, but it’s clear who the Federal Government is more interested in protecting. Maybe a day will come when the agriculture lobby no longer has such a hold over our lawmakers or control over the narrative around species protection. Until that day comes, we’ll simply blame the cats.
Linda Paull is a member of the National Board of the Animal Justice Party. She is an avid campaigner on animal rights and environment.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.