An Australian innovation offers a potential solution to the nation’s feral cat problem, and mining companies in the Pilbara region of Western Australia are supporting the initiative in one of the first national trials of the device to protect threatened native species.

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Pilbara’s unique wildlife is under threat of feral animals

Known as the Felixer, and about the size of a microwave, the device developed by South Australian environmental consultancy Ecological Horizons is placed in strategic locations where feral cats pose a threat to native animals. Using sensors and advanced algorithms, the Felixer automatically identifies feral cats and foxes by their unique shape and instantaneously administers a target-specific poison onto their fur. This approach takes advantage of the fact that feral cats, unlike other animals, are compulsive groomers and will ingest the toxin when licking their fur.

In collaboration with Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) Western Australia, iron ore mining companies, Roy Hill and Fortescue are trialling the devices in the Pilbara as a means to protect iconic threatened species of the region.

The two mining companies, with the assistance of Ecological Horizons and DBCA, deployed three of the devices for a two-year research period. Initially, each Felixer will be used in photo-only mode to study its efficacy at identifying cats and foxes.

If proven successful, the active mode will be employed, whereby a gel containing a measured dose of 1080 poison is sprayed onto target species. Since 1080 is a toxin that is naturally present in many of Australia’s pea plants, native animals have developed tolerance, while feral cats, foxes and other non-native species do not have a resistance.

Roy Hill and Fortescue both currently invest in feral animal control programs in the Pilbara, including trapping and baiting.

Threatened species of the Pilbara that are vulnerable to cats include the northern quoll, greater bilby, Pilbara olive python, Pilbara leaf-nosed bat and the famously rare night parrot. For the bilby and northern quoll, the Pilbara also serves as a final stronghold for the species.

“Australia has had the worst history of extinctions,” explained Dr Judy Dunlop from DBCA, the government agency overseeing the trials. “We have lost 30 mammal species since European colonisation in 1788, and introduced feral predators are implicated in 28 of these extinctions.”

“Pet cats that are sterilised and kept indoors are great companions; however, feral cats present a serious and ongoing threat to our native wildlife.

“While there is no silver bullet, the Felixer represents a significant opportunity to protect threatened species of the biodiversity-rich Pilbara bioregion.”

Australia’s feral cat population poses a significant threat to biodiversity nationwide. Feral cats, found across all of Australia, have been shown to kill up to 400 different native animal species. Feral cats in Australia are estimated to collectively consume several million birds, reptiles and mammals every day.

Even the most ambitious control programs that use a combination of methods, have proven incapable of eradicating all feral cats. Dr John Read, the inventor of the Felixer and founder of Ecological Horizons, has encountered this problem first-hand. While releasing threatened bilbies for Arid Recovery, a conservation research program in South Australia, feral cats repeatedly halted his progress.

“In each case, soon after we released the bilbies, feral cats would get to them,” Dr Read said. “We tried everything – cage traps, foot holds, baits – but nothing worked well enough to protect the bilbies. Cats are first and foremost hunters, which means that baits and baited traps are not very effective when cats are not desperately hungry. I thought there must be a better way.”

“I realised if you can squirt poison on a feral cat, they are very fastidious and will lick it off. Fast forward several years of development, a number of prototypes, and a host of regulatory approvals, and you get the version of the Felixer we see today.”

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The Felixer cat trap

With a doctorate in the effects of mining and pastoralism on ecology, Mr Read believes that mining can have a large impact locally, but on a large scale the effect can be negligible if appropriate planning and proactive environment measures are taken. The bigger issue he sees are introduced species such as stock, cats, foxes and rabbits.

“I know how difficult it can be doing feral animal control on mine sites and I see Felixers as a potential solution to that,” he said. “Mining companies have an opportunity to achieve positive benefits. Protecting species like this is a way to have a positive net effect.”

As mining companies Roy Hill and Fortescue work to reduce their environmental impact with offset programs and adopt technologies to enhance operations, innovations such as John Read’s Felixer are incredibly valuable.

“In addition to protecting important native species, the Felixer is an opportunity for Roy Hill to use advanced technology to improve operations,” said Barry Fitzgerald, the CEO of Roy Hill. “Roy Hill is committed to continual improvement and leading by example.”

“Provided that the Felixer is successful in the Pilbara, it has the potential to be adopted wherever feral predators pose a threat to biodiversity. This is a prime example of industry, government and start-ups coming together to face a broader issue.”

Fortescue CEO Elizabeth Gaines said, “Fortescue values the unique biodiversity of the Pilbara region and is committed to safeguarding the environment for future generations through responsible environmental management.”

“We are pleased to be involved in this cutting-edge research program, which is using the latest feral animal management technology in remote and unmanned locations where traditional feral cat trapping programs are not feasible.”

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