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Unenforced laws leave wildlife at the mercy of cats

Feral cat

Research at the University of Tasmania and Tilburg University in the Netherlands has found that governments are turning a blind eye to international regulations that should protect wildlife from domestic cats.

Dr Phillipa McCormack, law lecturer in the College of Arts, Law and Education, contributed to the Tilburg University-led research, which was published today. They found that even clear legal obligations were sometimes not fully and effectively implemented.

The team started by reviewing the scientific literature to find out what impact cats have on native wildlife. Scientists have recorded enormous impacts all over the world. Strikingly, in Australia, John Woinarski and colleagues have estimated that feral and pet cats together kill an average of 377 million birds per year – approximately a million birds per day – as well as an average of 649 million reptiles from 258 separate reptile species.

Dr McCormack said the reduction of native species is a global environmental challenge of our time and more can be done to limit the negative impacts that cats have on wildlife.

“Across the globe, outdoor domestic cats – pets, strays, and feral cats – threaten wildlife, from birds to bats to lizards,” she said.

“Many governments around the world are required, under international law, to adopt and implement policies aimed at preventing, reducing or eliminating these negative impacts that outdoor domestic cats have on wildlife.

“It seems, however, that many governments do not yet comply with these obligations, and that cats are a blind spot in the application of international conservation law.”

In Tasmania, recent changes to the Cat Management Act 2009 and the development of a Tasmanian Cat Management Plan 2017-2022 have improved the law for managing cats, but there is more to do before Tasmania is fully compliant with international legal obligations.   

Dr McCormack said that policies to protect wildlife should include removing feral and other unowned cats from the landscape (to the greatest extent possible), including in residential areas, and restricting outdoor access of domestic cats.

“Implementing these policies around the world, including in Tasmania, is necessary to help protect native wildlife and prevent further damage to our important ecosystems,” Dr McCormack said.

However, locally and internationally, people argue against protection from cats. The research team found the reasons for this are: the difficulty controlling cats, the interests of cat owners and cats themselves, and scientific uncertainty. For example, it is still unclear how native species and broader ecosystems respond to cat predation and their other impacts. From a legal perspective, they found that these factors provided little ground to justify ongoing non-compliance with wildlife protection obligations.

The full research paper is available on the British Ecological Society website.

Listen to Dr McCormack on ABC Radio Hobart (4 minutes in)

Published on: 06 Feb 2020 10:36am