Curiosity really does kill cats, protects native wildlife

Proponents say curiosity can reduce feral cat numbers by 80 per cent. Photo: Geoff Copson.
Proponents say curiosity can reduce feral cat numbers by 80 per cent. Photo: Geoff Copson.

A LETHAL bait called "curiosity" designed to kill feral cats, which were recently estimated to destroy 75million native animals every night, will be the initial focus of a new national commissioner to save threatened species.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt will announce the new commissioner at an event in Sydney on Wednesday to launch a major review setting out the dire health of Australian native mammals.

Mr Hunt's office would not disclose who had been given the post on Tuesday, but Fairfax Media understands it is likely an internal appointment from within the environment department.

Mr Hunt said the commissioner's first act would be developing a list of priority actions to stop the speedy decline of the country's threatened species.

As part of that the commissioner would champion the next stage of the development of the curiosity bait, he said.

"We know feral cats kill millions of mammals every night. The curiosity bait has the potential to make a real difference to the protection and recovery of our native species," Mr Hunt said.

Curiosity has been developed and trialled by the federal, Victorian and West Australian environment departments, alongside a private biotech company, for many years.

For it to be rolled out widely it would need to be commercialised and registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.

The independent review to be launched on Wednesday provided the first comprehensive review of the status of more than 400 native land and marine mammals.

It found 56 species, and 36 subspecies, were threatened with extinction, with feral cats the greatest threat to native mammals.

The curiosity bait contains a toxin that halts the flow of oxygen in blood and is considered a more humane way to kill feral cats.

It is implanted into a small piece of meat shaped like a chipolata sausage.

Proponents say curiosity can reduce feral cat numbers by 80 per cent.

But it is less likely to be eaten by native animals because unlike cats they nibble and chew their food and therefore are more likely to reject the bait.

Dr Andrew Burbidge, chairman of the Western Australian Threatened Species Scientific Committee, said more research was needed to determine which other animals might be at risk from the bait, such as marsupial carnivores.

There would have to be restrictions on where the bait could be used, especially in urban areas where people kept cats as pets, he said.

Fenced areas that kept out feral cats were necessary to save the most critically endangered mammals in the short-term, he added.

But for native mammal populations to recover sufficiently, Dr Burbidge said feral felines needed to be eliminated from the entire continent, something that was likely to be achievable only through a genetically engineered disease that killed or sterilised the pests.

Professor John Woinarski from Charles Darwin University said trials of the bait were showing promise in many places.

"It's early days in the trials and it hasn't been demonstrated that it's completely harmless to other species but it's better than anything else going around," he said.

Establishing a threatened species commissioner was an election pledge of the Coalition.

Mr Hunt said the commissioner would work with the community to increase awareness of threatened species and co-ordinate protection plans.