Australian government’s cat population estimates out by tens of millions

January 6, 2017

Well this is embarrassing. 

A new research project has revealed that the cat population statistics being promoted by our National Government and our National Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews - and given literally hundreds of media features by the ABC - are bullshit.

Government estimates of feral cat populations have been found to be off by millions in a new study.

The study, led by Sarah Legge from the University of Queensland, has revised the number of the feral animal from the popularly used figures of 15 million-20 million to 2.1 to 6.3 million, making the government's target to eradicate 2 million of the animals between 2015 and 2020 even more "ambitious".

Sydney Morning Herald

So the oft-quoted “75 million native animals” number that we already knew was completely squishy, can finally be put to rest.

But the real story is who is behind the research.

Sarah Legge is an Associate Professor at the Australian National University and a Principle Research Fellow with the University of Queensland…. Sarah has a particularly strong background in practical conservation management; she worked for a non-government conservation organization (the Australian Wildlife Conservancy) for over a decade, where she led its Conservation and Science program. 

From the website of The $60 million Threatened Species Recovery Hub "... is supported by funding through the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme (NESP), and matched by contributions from 10 of the country’s leading academic institutions and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy".

That’s right - they’re ba...aaack!

The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) were the guys who have been behind all the current hysterical media around cats. Their founder Atticus Fleming created the “75 million native animals” schitic back in 2012 to use in their charity fundraising and have been stirring-up controversy ever since.

Based in Subiaco (it's no coincidence WA has the most draconian cat-ownership laws in the country) the organisation had revenue of $21 million dollars in 2015 - $18 million of which came from donations and government grants.

Being in the media is a very good thing for this charity - and their catchy, cat-demonising ditties really caught hold in 2016.

But things went a bit wrong when Commissioner Andrews started yabbering about commercialising cat bait to kill “2 million cats by 2020” - his self-aggrandising plan which got his maw on the television. And a cat tracker app which mainly revealed inner-city strays like they were Pokemon. Instead of doing what the AWC had desired; promoting fenced reserves for native animals.

So - bless their cotton socks - they hung the Commissioner out to dry. Oh, the cat is out of the bag! (ahem)....

The study... questions the target set by the government and how useful it may be in achieving the goal.

"This particular target may not provide a useful measure of conservation benefit, nor may it be readily measurable, and it may become an example of Goodhart's Law - that once a target is set, management effort becomes focused on achieving the target in the most efficient way rather than solving the problem to which the target relates," the study reads.

What do they suggest instead? I bet you can’t guess…

We collated 91 site-based feral cat density estimates in Australia and examine the influence of environmental and geographic influences on density. We extrapolate from this analysis to estimate that the feral cat population in natural environments….

Our results indicate that the severe losses of Australia's native mammals are not due to exceptionally high densities of feral cats.

Our estimate of the total feral cat population provides context for the high profile Australian Government conservation target to kill two million feral cats by 2020 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015). It makes this target more challenging, given that such a cull would represent a far higher proportion of the pre-cull cat population than originally envisaged.

To some extent, focus on the cull target and even a population estimate is (not tangible) to the main conservation issue of the role of feral cats as a key factor in the decline - and in some cases, extinction - of Australian animal species, and the mechanisms to manage that impact.

For example, it may be more beneficial for Australian biodiversity if relatively few feral cats are eradicated from small areas of high conservation value while cats remain widespread and abundant elsewhere, than if the feral cat population was more substantially reduced overall but not eradicated from those important areas.

Indeed, many Australian native mammal species occur now only in very small areas in which feral cats have been excluded, or on islands from which feral cats have been eradicated or not yet invaded. Hence, the national population size of feral cats, and the extent of its reduction, is not necessarily an important parameter for conservation management.

Study - Enumerating a continental-scale threat: How many feral cats are in Australia? Biological Conservation (2016)

Small-fenced areas are where we should focus you say? SHOCKER.

So this powerful charity-lobby group has for more than five years promoted the notion that the nation was over-run with cats - as soon as their nominated solution goes out of favour with the government, NOW has reviewed the science and found that there are ten times less cats than speculated. And that rather than national, broad-scale, commercial baiting, we should focus on fenced conservation areas?

How convenients.

Cats really are without a friend in Australia. Cat charities siding with the same organisations who want to see cats exterminated. Cat extermination companies acting in indistinguishable ways to cat charities - the largest killers of cats in the country. And the national government protecting the interests of miners, farmers and developers, while presenting cats as the major danger to the environment.

It really is pretty disgusting. And expensive. Don't forget expensive.

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