A fence has been built in order to protect the endangered species of central Australia where mammal extinction is said to be the worst worldwide. (Landline: Kristy O’Brien)
In the red centre of Australia there’s a silent and extremely effective killer lurking… feral cats.
Far from the innocent domestic variety, there are estimated to be millions of feral predators wreaking havoc on central Australia’s native mammal populations.
Feral cats are carnivores and love to devour small mammals and birds.
Their natural instinct to hunt means they also kill hundreds of animals needlessly.
The region now boasts the shameful statistic of having the worst extinction rate anywhere in the world — 30 mammals to be exact.
“There are then 10 other threatened mammals,” CEO of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Atticus Fleming, said.
“Some of them have been extinct in central Australia for nearly a century, others have disappeared in recent decades so central Australia really is a global epicentre for mammal extinctions,” he said.
The Mala (Rufous Hare-wallaby) is the first of 10 threatened mammals to be reintroduced at Newhaven. (Landline: Kristy O’Brien)
“To put that in a global context — a country like the US since it’s European settlement has had one mammal extinction, so Australia is really off the charts in terms of our mammal extinction rate,” Mr Fleming said.
Translocations in 2019 include the Bilby, the Burrowing Bettong and the Golden Bandicoot. (Landline: Kristy O’Brien)
Far from giving in, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy purchased Newhaven Station, 350 kilometres from Alice Springs, to try tackle the crisis.
The former cattle property was purchased more than a decade ago and has a vast and varied ecosystem.
It sits right on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert and at the heart of the problem area.
A ‘new haven’ for native life
“The one thing we know that works is creating these very large feral-free cat areas. So we’ve created already a number around Australia, but Newhaven is where we are building the largest feral cat free area on the continent and it’s going to be a great project for some of Australia’s most endangered mammals,” Mr Fleming said.
The final result will be the world’s largest cat fence.
Construction of stage one which is 44 kilometres required 35,000 pickets, 1,600 kilometres of plain wire and more than 500 kilometres of netting.
Material for stage one of Newhaven’s feral cat eradication project. (ABC Rural: Katrina Beavan )
It’s one of Australia’s most significant pieces of conservation infrastructure and will eventually restore the vast landscape to what it was 200 years prior, before feral cats and foxes arrived.
The next phase will see the fence stretch more than 185 kilometres protecting 70,000 hectares of land.
But for the fence to be successful all the cats must be caught and removed from inside the fenced area.
A cat-free zone for vulnerable species
Station manager Josef Schofield believes that’s where local knowledge is paramount.
“The Indigenous rangers [and] their ability to read the landscape and read through signs on the ground — what animals are where and how their behaving — is fairly unparalleled throughout the world really,” Mr Schofield said.
Christine Ellis (left) and Josef Schofield (right) reading the landscape for animal activity. (Landline: Kristy O’Brien)
When the cats are gone, 11 vulnerable species will be introduced.
“There are 400 odd Mala left on mainland Australia. When we finish this project there’ll be 18,000 Mala just here at Newhaven,” Mr Fleming said.
But accurate data is required to back up the merits of the fence and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s team based at Newhaven are busy collecting the baseline data before the feral animals are removed.
Field ecologist Dympna Cullen said the survey is also one of Australia’s biggest science projects.
“Half the traps are in the fenced area and half of them are outside so we can really compare how things change. Once we’ve removed all the feral animals we can see how those species go,” Ms Cullen said.
Ms Cullen works for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy at Newhaven. (Landline: Kristy O’Brien)
Results will take time, but Ms Cullen said it is already abundantly clear that the mammals’ decline has consequences for the entire landscape.
“Burrowing Bettongs, they’re sort of you know 1 and a half kilo’s and they can turnover six to seven tonnes a year in soil, so you start to think about the scale of the number of animals we are putting in here and this a pretty huge change in the landscape.”
Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary will soon be home to a 9,500 hectare feral animal free zone
The cats are expected to all be removed by Christmas 2018.
Mr Fleming said after the feral cats are gone it will be a matter of sitting back and letting Mother Nature do her thing.
“If you get people on the ground, if you get the science right, and the feral animal control right you can actually turn back the tide of extinctions in Australia,” he said.
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