Not many aboriginal hunters seem interested
ALICE SPRINGS, Australia––The Northern Territory government, Victoria Ellis of ABC Rural breathlessly revealed on June 9, 2023, hopes to expedite ridding the 60,344-square-mile Gibson Desert of feral cats by giving an all-female aboriginal ranger team called the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers target practice with firearms.
Of course the feral cats of the Gibson Desert, one of the hottest and most desolate parts of the world, are strictly nocturnal. No matter how skilled the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers become at shooting by moonlight, their chances of finding many cats to shoot at are slim.
But then, the Northern Territory government anticipates that most of the shooting will be much like shooting fish in a barrel, in that the cats will have been trapped first.
Shooting from cars
“The Tjuwanpa Women Rangers have been sharpening their shooting skills at the Alice Springs Shooting Complex,” reported Ellis.
“On 4,500 hectares of land in the Ntaria region,” equal to 17 square miles, or .000282% of Gibson Desert, “the rangers trap and euthanize feral cats with a gunshot and then bury them.
“Traps are often set out for a few weeks,” Ellis explained, “and checked daily, but occasionally the rangers go on day trips to hunt using tracking techniques.
“The rangers have also been trained to shoot from vehicles,” Ellis added, mentioning a practice that is strictly illegal for sport hunters worldwide, for obvious safety reasons.
In the Gibson Desert, however, with a total resident human population of perhaps 250 people, the Pintupi hunters and Tjuwanpa Women Rangers included, shooting anyone by accident, even when shooting from moving vehicles across roads, is highly unlikely.
“Labor-intensive & requires a lot of skill”
The Tjuwanpa Women Rangers, Ellis added, “are focused on killing as many feral cats as possible, but do not have a set quota.”
Ellis’ report, amplified worldwide by syndicated news services, upset cat lovers, but a quick file check would have discovered that Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian equally breathlessly reported in October 2015 that Pintupi hunters from the Kiwirrkurra community in the Gibson Desert were helping government biologists to purge feral cats, for a bounty of $100 per cat.
Eighteen bounty payments had been collected in 18 months.
“Feral cats can be controlled with shooting and trapping,” Wahlquist observed, “but shooting is labor-intensive and requires a lot of skill.”
Eight years of low returns later, some Aussie bureaucrat decided that target practice might help. The video accompanying Ellis’ report, however, showed exactly one member of the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers on a target range.
Wahlquist illustrated her report with a photo of a bush fire supposedly set by aboriginal hunters to flush out feral cats. In the wake of wildfires elsewhere in Australia in 2019-2020 that killed at least 33 people and burned 29.7 million acres, equivalent to almost the whole of Maine or South Carolina, this technique is probably no longer encouraged.
Descendants of African desert cat
In view that Australian government scientists even then had established that feral cats reached the Gibson Desert in the 19th century, and had probably occupied it to the feline carrying capacity of the habitat before any humans of European ancestry managed to survive there, it is unlikely that either the Pintupi hunters or the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers are going to make much of a dent in the cat population, or for that matter that the cat population is going to lose the niche they have established for themselves.
The Australian feral cats are, after all, distant descendants of the African desert cat, ancestors of every domesticated and/or feral cat worldwide, supremely adapted to survival in the Sahara, the Kalahari, the Gibson, or any other desert with mice, other mouse-sized mammals, lizards, and occasionally crippled birds to hunt.
Legacy of Greg Hunt
So why are a variety of Australian government agencies pouring money into teaching the Tjuwanpa Women Rangers to shoot, on top of multi-millions of dollars spent on other feral cat killing schemes over the past half century?
Feral cats, after all, have also for more than 150 years been the primary predators of introduced mice, rats, and rabbits, all of whom Australian government agencies have also long sought to poison out of existence.
Part of it may be pure public relations for what remains of a failed scheme to kill two million feral cats by 2020, announced in 2015 by former Australian environment minister Greg Hunt, now retired from politics.
Eradicat & Curiosity
During Hunt’s attempted reign of terror against feral cats, who mostly ignored his efforts, seemingly mad scientists in government employ developed Eradicat.
This is a poison bait using sodium fluoroacetate as the lethal agent. Better known as Compound 1080, sodium fluoroacetate has been banned almost everywhere else worldwide for more than 50 years, except in New Zealand and in limited use against coyotes by USDA Wildlife Services.
Even Richard Nixon hated Compound 1080
Former U.S. president Richard Nixon banned Compound 1080 entirely in 1972.
His successor two presidents later, Ronald Reagan, brought it back at behest of western ranchers.
Hunt’s seemingly mad scientists also developed Curiosity, a similar poison bait using para-aminopropiophenone, nicknamed PAPP.
“Conservation or politics?”
Biologists Tim S. Doherty, Euan G. Ritchie, Don A. Driscoll, Dale G. Nimmo, and Ricky‐John Spencer in February 2019 responded to Hunt’s witch hunt for cats in an analysis entitled “Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill 2 million cats,” published by the journal Conservation Letters, the periodical of the Society for Conservation Biology.
“We argue that the well‐publicized [government] target to cull two million feral cats has a weak scientific basis,” the five scientists began, concluding that, “The cull target fails to meet what would be considered best practice for pest management,” and that “The focus on killing cats runs the risk of distracting attention away from other threats to biodiversity, most prominent of which is widespread, ongoing habitat loss.”
As cat-killing schemes become increasingly unpopular and suspect as boondoggles, aboriginal women––who have a very long history of being exploited by Down Under politicians under various dubious pretexts––put a much more sympathetic face on attempts to blame and kill cats than do seemingly mad scientists hellbent on distributing poisons at public expense for personal prestige and profit.