In a bid to control feral cat numbers and protect the native wildlife in a remote reserve in Australia, conservationists have deployed traps with the intent of killing any prowling feline. They hope that the robots will help to protect the only known place where the rare and elusive night parrot still lives. Thought to be extinct for over 100 years, only three living people have ever seen one of the birds, making the reserve a site of national – if not international – importance.
The "grooming" traps rely on cats' meticulous behavior in keeping themselves clean. When a feral feline triggers the robots by breaking the lasers, the machine sprays the cat’s fur with a poison. When the animal then goes away to groom itself, it invariably ingests the deadly substance and subsequently dies. It’s a neat solution that uses the cats' own behavior against them, in a bid to try and control the felines' numbers in an incredibly important ecosystem that contains species balancing on the brink of extinction.
The traps have been in development for seven years, and contain a certain number of safeguards to try and stop any native fauna from being accidently targeted. There are four lasers, which measure the size of the animals that pass in front of it. The top one measures the height; anything taller than the standard feline – such as dingoes and koalas – are free to go. Another laser measures whether there is a gap between the belly and the ground, meaning that creatures like wombats pass through too. Finally, both the front and back laser need to be triggered to indicate the length of a cat.
Not only that, but the poison used in the traps is based on a naturally occurring substance, 1080, found in some native Australian plants. This means that some animals that have been evolving alongside the flora in isolation for millions of years are already immune to it. Finally, a lot of the native wildlife are simply not as clean as the feral felines, meaning that they are unlikely to groom themselves with such intensity if they do get sprayed. After tests involving cameras rather than poison sprayers, the traps have now gone live in the 560-square-kilometer (216-square-mile) Pullen Pullen reserve, managed by Bush Heritage Australia.
Feral cats have proven to be a massive problem when it comes to the conservation of Australia’s wildlife. It is estimated that there could be as many as 20 million of the felines prowling the outback, in turn killing tens of millions of native small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Since the arrival of Europeans, it is estimated that around 130 of Australia’s unique species have gone extinct, while feral cats have been implicated in the extinction of at least 20 of these, such as the desert bandicoot, and are known to consume at least another 16 species that are considered threatened.
In light of this, last year the Australian government announced a controversial plan to cull two million cats by the year 2020 in an effort to try and protect these fragile ecosystems and the species they contain. “[Cats] are tsunamis of violence and death for Australia's native species,” the environment minister Greg Hunt told Australian media. While many conservationists agree with the huge threat posed by cats, there is some doubt as to whether this new government strategy will actually achieve anything.