Birds Triumph Over Cats
Cats have gone feral in parts of the Australian wilderness. They’re indiscriminate killers of indigenous fauna. But not on Tasman Island they’re not. Not any longer.
A colony of fairy prions (Pachyptila turtur) — possibly the largest colony of these seabirds found in Australia — and conservationists are leading the applause. Plenty of other people, some who even like cats, are joining them.
Tasman Island is some from 550 yards off the Tasmanian ‘mainland’. Part of the Tasman National Park, the island is roughly 1mile long and half a mile wide. Fantastic dolerite cliffs rise up some 340 yards from the sea and naturally fortify a central plateau.
The island’s lighthouse spears up from the verdant mesa. Automation of the light in the 1970s forced redundancy upon its keepers. When the lighthouse staff and their families were winched and sailed from the island some of their pet cats were left behind.
Without a human population and rarely a human visitor, the cats had the run of the island. Their numbers grew. The feral cat population became approximately 50. For the fairy prions, a burrow-nesting seabird, they were the neighbours from hell.
The colony of prions on the island consists of between 300,000 to 700,000 breeding pairs. It has been estimated that each cat probably killed two to four prions per night. Annually, they killed approximately 54,000 fairy prions and other seabirds. A population of little penguins (Eudyptula minor) was wiped out.
The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service estimates 28 species of land and seabirds have been recorded on the island. Another burrow-nesting seabird, the shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) — one of the world’s great migratory birds — shares Tasman Island breeding ground with the prions.
The fat cats were living large. They may have been rarely hungry. Often they only consumed a small part of their prey. Enter Rob Pennicott, one Tasmania’s leading tourism operators.
Pennicott founded the Tasmania Coast Conservation Fund and married his fund with the more established WildCare Inc. The joint premise was simple. Their funds would provide the dollars to the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service to undertake projects that wouldn’t be achieved without private funds.
An initial A$25,000 from Pennicott’s fund was spent flying experts to Tasmania from New Zealand. A report and a plan for eradication was prepared and Pennicott liked it. The intricate plan was appealing given it stated eradication was achievable. This was Pennicott’s first substantial foray into philanthropy. In all gave A$65,000 to the project.
After much pre-eradication work, baiting and trapping began in May 2010. After the birds had finished breeding and there were fewer birds for the cats to feed upon. Crucial to the success was a follow-up program using motion-sensing cameras as well as trained dogs to check for any lingering feral cats.
In December 2010 Rob and his wife, Michaye, and their two children visited the island for a few days. During their stay Rob viewed over 5000 infa-red images from the motion-sensing cameras. All the pictures were of fledgling prions. “Not one showed any sign of a cat,” says a rightly proud Pennicott.
Indeed, not one cat has been found since the eradication program was implemented. “Years ago when we first visited the island there were hundreds of bird carcasses. On the latest trip there wasn’t one [carcass],” says Pennicott. “To be associated with things like that blow you away.”
The masses of prions swooping the seas about the island blow a lot of other people away. Pennicott runs boat cruises in two locations around Tasmania. One of them cruises along the Tasman Peninsula and his boats run passengers up close to the island. “We often have hundreds if not thousands of prions skimming across the water during the breeding season from October to Christmas,” Pennicott says. The cruises also encounter albatross, dolphins, seals and sometimes whales.
It is expected that this month, in May 2011, the feral cats will for the first time be officially declared eradicated from Tasman Island. Any visitors cruising near Tasman Island should listen closely. They might almost hear the wings of a skimming prion, or a shearwater for that matter, clapping.
With thanks to information supplied by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.
Greg Clarke regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines in Australia and throughout Asia. He once lived in London's East End, which aside from the proximity to ripping curries and cheap haircuts proved handy while he was at The Sunday Times. Greg regularly plunges into Tassie’s extraordinary wilderness as much for adventure as a way to shed some of the pounds he stacks on while sampling way too much of the island’s food and fine wine. When he's not travelling or writing his daughters take him on wanderings in search of fairies, wombats and devils.