New technology helping Kangaroo Island to become feral cat free

An ambitious plan is currently underway to eradicate feral cats on Australia’s third-largest island. Estimated to be in their thousands, feral cats on Kangaroo Island are disastrous for the local native animals and sheep industry, a problem that has been made worse by the bushfires that swept across over half of the island in 2019–20.

Following these bushfires, surviving feral felines roamed across the burnt landscape that was now stripped bare, giving feral cats the upper hand and vulnerable wildlife nowhere to hide.

An eradication program led by the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board is already underway to remove feral cats from the Dudley Peninsula, on the island’s eastern end, but following the bushfires, there has been a new sense of urgency leading to intensive feral cat control across the fire scar.

This collaborative and coordinated approach involving Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board and the Department of Water and Environment has seen broad-scale feral cat programs to help threatened species recover from the fires.

Pat Hodgens (Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife) and the Felixer trap

Two Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery grants are supporting the ongoing feral cat control on western KI and will vastly improve the way feral cats are targeted on the island. The grants are jointly managed by Landcare Australia, the National Landcare Network and Landcare peak bodies to assist in recovery from the catastrophic 2019 bushfires.

A $214,000 grant was awarded to Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, who will retrofit existing Felixer™ grooming traps with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to target feral cats more efficiently. Felixers currently target feral cats based on their size and movement and when successfully detected, eject a lethal dose of toxin onto the feral cat which inherently grooms the gel from its fur and ingests it.

It is hoped that the successful integration of AI into the traps can then be applied to Felixers currently being used throughout Australia.

Senior Ecologist Pat Hodgens said Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife are using Felixers to help protect species like the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. This small endangered marsupial is only found in small numbers on Kangaroo Island’s western end and was thought to be at serious risk of extinction following the bushfires. 

“The fires burnt out over 96 percent of the dunnarts’ known habitat,” said Pat.

Within days of the bushfires, Pat and his colleagues searched areas where Kangaroo Island Dunnarts had previously been found to see if any had survived.

When we first detected dunnarts the relief was short-lived as we also found feral cats patrolling in the same areas. We were successful at trapping feral cats but also knew there were many cats that wouldn’t enter a cage trap, so we needed to use all available techniques.

Examining the cats’ stomach contents, we confirmed there were Kangaroo Island Dunnart killers among those trapped, he added.

With this information, the group went into action to protect the dunnarts by trapping and shooting feral cats in priority areas. With project partners Australian Wildlife Conservancy and local landholders, they also fenced off a 380-hectare area to create the island’s only cat-free zone.

The Kangaroo Island Landscape Board also received a $355,000 Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery grant to help develop technology to streamline their feral cat control work, benefiting Kangaroo Island native species and primary producers within the bushfire scar.

Paul Jennings, Kangaroo Island Dunnart Recovery Project Manager with the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board, said following the bushfires his team had found Kangaroo Island Dunnarts, and many other threatened species, at nearly 70 sites across western Kangaroo Island, giving some hope that recovery efforts are working following the wide-scale destruction of habitat.

His team, working with rangers from National Parks and Wildlife SA, have removed over 850 feral cats from these sites since the bushfires, giving the Kangaroo Island Dunnart and other threatened native animals a fighting chance. 

The Kangaroo Island Landscape Board is using their Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery Grant to incorporate Encounter Solutions’ Celium technology into their broad-scale feral cat control strategy.

This technology uses a low-power, wireless, trap sensor network to control feral cats over very large areas. The sensor network sends a signal, via satellite or mobile tower, to one of the control team’s mobile phones whenever an animal is trapped. This enables control officers to focus their efforts just on the traps with feral cats, rather than having to check every trap every day.

From a large-scale pest control perspective, this technology is game-changing. In addition to saving a lot of time, wireless trap monitoring will slash feral cat control costs.

In most cases, the cost of labour for pest trapping is 40–70 per cent of the total cost of an operation. Wireless technology can reduce this labour cost by 50–80 per cent, he said.

This will enable redeployment of resources and hopefully ultimately shift the focus from suppression to eradication across western Kangaroo Island, as it currently is on the eastern Dudley Peninsula of Kangaroo Island.

Both Pat and Paul reflected on the immensity of the task being undertaken to make Kangaroo Island feral cat free, and the broad community support for this plan.

Almost 100 per cent of private landholders are on board with removing feral cats altogether, as they see the enormous damage and cost they have on biodiversity and the agricultural industry, Pat said

Paul noted that Kangaroo Island landholders had recently worked very cooperatively with the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board to successfully eradicate feral deer and goats from the island; a great example of what can be done when working toward a common goal.  

The $14 million Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery Grants Program is supporting projects in regions impacted by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, and has been funded by the Australian Government’s Bushfire Recovery Program for Wildlife and their Habitat.