The continuing loss of plant, animal and reptile species has dire consequences

Jan 20, 2021

While cats provide much-needed companionship, they are also genetically programmed killers. Cats have devastating effects on biodiversity, which is vital for food security. .. Estimates are that domestic cats kill 61 million birds a year and those becoming feral kill more than 300 million birds plus countless small mammals and reptiles. By contrast the recent Australian bushfires killed 180 million birds.

Credit – Unsplash

The global pandemic has engulfed the media, which consistently features health care workers struggling heroically in intensive care units to save stricken lives, sometimes at the expense of their own.

Intensive care units provide patients with mechanical support to breathe oxygen and maintain their nutrition, water needs and temperature control.

The same life support systems are provided to humanity by a stable climate, clean air, adequate water and the biodiversity of productive land. All are increasingly harmed by our failure to act on solid scientific evidence that we are harming them irrevocably.

These life support systems provide the basis for the sustainability of this continent for our health and survival.

A report card for each of these environmental life support systems would focus most attention on biodiversity because its importance is poorly understood and little is being done to maintain it. On most measureable environmental criteria, Australia’s environment is fast deteriorating.

A recent evaluation by Corey Bradshaw, Paul Ehrlich and colleagues of the world’s environment states “that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms —including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts”. The Bradshaw article is summarised in The Conversation.

Admittedly this view of the importance of biodiversity loss might seem to contradict the evidence that climate change is the prime process destined to overwhelm us this century. However, there is some hope that global heating can be controlled by many countries committing to 2050 zero emission targets even though Australia is defaulting.

Furthermore the public wants action on climate change.

By contrast, there is insufficient public or government understanding of the dire consequences of the continuing loss of plant, animal and reptile species from the direct damaging actions of industry, governments, and individuals.

Despite this, in 2020 the Morrison government refused to sign a global pledge endorsed by 64 countries committing them to reverse biodiversity loss because it was inconsistent with Australia’s policies presumably on resource development. And this year Australia was not one of 50 countries committed to protecting 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030.

In stressing biodiversity loss, the Bradshaw paper adds a vital issue, “Political Impotence”, to the confluence of dangers of climate change, population, economic growth and consumption besetting humanity.

“If most of the world’s population truly understood and appreciated the magnitude of the crises we summarize here, and the inevitability of worsening conditions, one could logically expect positive changes in politics and policies to match the gravity of the existential threats. But the opposite is unfolding.”

This impotence applies most to biodiversity, for the use of finite environmental resources in a warming climate will diminish biodiversity and therefore food security.

Our Government fails to understand that our life support system of food production depends on biodiversity provided by countless species of the soil’s worms, fungi and bacteria to maintain its ecological structure and by the pollinators, birds and animals which control pests and enhance productivity.

It also fails to understand that degradation of ecosystems is related to the increasing number of Zoonoses such as Ebola, Nipah and Zika viruses.

Government understanding and action are limited to the plight of iconic species — and funds to preserve some of their habitats.

Each day there are examples of the Australian government’s indifference to this issue driven by the perceived need for growth and development of resources as demonstrated by the hijack of vital environmental reforms in the revised EPBC Act. In the words of Environment Minister Sussan Ley “it will allow projects to be fast-tracked”.

Therefore, it was perhaps surprising that last year the Minister announced a Parliamentary Inquiry into the problem of feral and domestic cats in Australia. It will report later this year. The task of stopping the devastating effect of cats on biodiversity seems insurmountable but the inquiry may serve the purpose of showing government interest in the topic.

It could also encourage education on the role of biodiversity and ecological services because the successful control of cats will require extensive explanation to persuade cat owners and the public of the damage cats cause.

In Australia nearly 4 million households have cats. Estimates are that domestic cats kill 61 million birds a year and those becoming feral kill more than 300 million birds plus countless small mammals and reptiles. By contrast the recent Australian bushfires killed 180 million birds.

Presently there are no effective means of culling the feral cats roaming the vast Australian landscape. The preservation of native species requires secure fencing for key areas, which commenced in 2015 with the ‘Creating Safe Havens’ program for native animals and plants. Clearly its long-term relevance depends upon the development of methods to cull cats and other feral species. The cat is too cunning for traps and poisons and significant funding is needed to produce and release cats genetically engineered for sterility, an important test of government commitment.

Meanwhile national action is desperately needed to curtail the clearance of land and habitat, which provides cover for the hunted wildlife.

Domestic cats present very different problems. They destroy the wildlife of suburban and regional towns and their surrounds at a time when we are coming to recognise the importance of greening our environment and valuing its native species.

Reform will require skills not yet displayed by most governments for we might envisage thousands of incensed and devoted cat owners protesting by storming our “Capitol” hill in Canberra. In terms of attitudes and regulation little has changed since 1994.

The skills required are the sympathetic recognition of the companionship that cats provide many people particularly the lonely, while educating that every cat is a genetically programmed killer outside its home.

The omens are poor. For example, currently the ACT government states: “Cat policy in the ACT is aimed at ensuring the rights of domestic cats and their owners. It also provides the means by which cats are responsibly owned and managed so that they do not cause a nuisance or danger to the wider community and environment.”

This raises the question as to whether domestic cats have more rights than the thousands of birds and animals they kill, or ultimately the human right to health and survival, which is the ultimate consideration in our fast-deteriorating national environment.

Educational measures and funding must focus on cat confinement. The cat door needs to access a caged exercise and play area, with financial assistance for implementation by needy owners.

Habitat clearance in Australia is greater than in other developed countries and continues unabated. Habitat preservation will require controlling the open cat door via the EPBC Act, which currently allows the biggest, most powerful and skilled predators from the fossil fuel, logging and corporate farming industries to operate with scant regulation.

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