Construction has begun on what is set to become the largest feral cat-free area on Australia’s mainland. Conservationists have started building the fence for the first stage of the project, which will eventually aim to restore a 70,000-hectare (170,500-acre) region of the desert to how it looked before Europeans arrived.
Once the electric fence – overhanging at the top and curved under at the bottom – is complete, scientists and local Warlpiri men and women will hunt down and eradicate every cat, fox, and rabbit found within the enclosure. This will then set the scene for the reintroduction of native animals that are struggling to maintain a foothold on the mainland, as the introduced predators continue to decimate their numbers.
They will begin by releasing 10 different species of rare and endangered mammals, such as the wonderfully monikered termite-munching numbat, bat-eared bilby, and rufous hare-wallaby. Once an initial tract of land around 9,450 hectares (23,350 acres) is protected and cleared of predators, they will begin the reintroductions, before expanding this to the full size by 2021. The hope is that the reserve will provide a refuge for many native species that only persist on cat-free islands off the coast of Australia.
“It is a choice between cats or bilbies and we are for the bilbies,” Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy who is running the project, told AFP. “What this all adds up to is, in three or four years you will be able to go out to this place and visiting this area will be like stepping back in time. You will see the Australian bush as it was a couple of hundred years ago. It will be alive with these native mammals that were there until the cats removed them.”
When Europeans first arrived in Australia, they reported that the desert was alive with a whole host of native marsupials that had adapted over the millions of years of isolation to thrive in the scorching interior. But when the cats, rats, foxes, and rabbits also brought with these settlers found their way into these parts, they wreaked havoc.
Naive to these non-native predators and competitors, marsupials such as the brush-tailed bettong suffered heavily. With up to an estimated 6 million feral cats roaming the outback of Australia, each of which can kill up to seven native mammals in a single night, the felines are a seriously destructive force. They are thought to have caused the extinction of 30 native mammals, and threaten 60 more.
The hope is to double the population of some of these threatened species, creating a haven where the native species can flourish, free from feral cats.