Each week at the edge of the Gibson Desert in the most remote community in Australia, a group of Pintupi Traditional Owners — mostly women — follow fresh tracks by foot through the spinifex grasslands ready to catch and kill a feral cat.
- Kiwirrkurra is the most remote community in Australia, located close to the WA/NT border in the Gibson Desert
- Over five years researchers monitored cat and bilby populations where Indigenous cat hunting took place
- Feral cat sightings near bilby burrows where cat hunting occurred were significantly less than where hunting did not occur
Indigenous cat hunting is something that has been happening for more than a century at Kiwirrkurra, primarily for food.
But it is more than a tradition.
New research has now shown its value as one of the most effective ways of protecting threatened species in the area.
Researchers say Indigenous expert trackers could potentially be drawn upon to conduct targeted cat control.
Published online in the CSIRO’s journal Wildlife Research this month, the paper explored how effective cat hunting by Indigenous tracking experts was in reducing cat impacts on threatened species.
According to ecologist Rachel Paltridge, who was one four authors on the report, the answer is “very efficient”, particularly when looking at the population of the threatened bilby species in the area.
Dr Paltridge said the abundance of cats at locations where cat hunting no longer occurred was 30 per cent higher than at locations where the practice does occur.
This meant less predation of the bilbies.
“When we set-up cameras on the bilby burrows the number of cats recorded visiting the burrows is extremely low,” she said.
“About a tenth of the visitation rate that studies elsewhere have found.”
Cats major threat to native animals
According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment feral cats threaten the survival of over 100 native species in Australia.
The pest is a major cause of decline for many land-based endangered animals such as the bilby, bandicoot, bettong and numbat.
Public hearings are currently taking place for a parliamentary inquiry into the problem of feral and domestic cats in Australia.
Over the course of five years 130 cats were caught in the Kiwrrkurra area, increasing in recent years.
The figures may seem like a drop in the ocean compared with the millions of feral cats in Australia, but Dr Paltridge says the area’s targeted and specific approach to hunting, that allows Indigenous trackers to seek out the biggest and most destructive cats, is its biggest benefit.
She said these cats were the most difficult to catch by trapping and baiting methods.
“And we need the method to be cheap and locally available so the program can be ongoing.”
Passing on knowledge
Cat hunting has been used as a method of conservation by the Kiwirrkurra Rangers for the past six years.
Ranger John West, who is an experienced cat hunter and also an author on the paper, says it is important for them to pass on the skills to younger generations.
“They are looking for where they belong, why they are tracking the cat, getting more ideas from us and learning why it’s really important so one day they can grow up and become a fast tracker.
“Bilbies are important for us to keep protecting.”
For many, it is also an enjoyable pastime.
“Like in the past, we’re learning [to] keep going.
“We love hunting, going out for cat and for anything.
“Yuwa (yes) snake, goannas, kangaroos and turkey; yuwa palya (yes it’s good!).”
Dr Paltridge said the effectiveness of the cat hunting showed Indigenous expert trackers could be drawn on to conduct strategic cat control in certain landscapes, in the same way that shooters were used in other locations around the country.
“If there was a project somewhere with a problem cat around an endangered species colony then these expert hunters could be called in as one of the techniques used.”
The frequency of feral cats in modern Australia may prove a challenge, however.
The Pintupi Traditional Owners are one of what is believed to be just two Aboriginal groups in Australia that continue to cat hunt on a regular basis.
“But there’s still a lot of good trackers, they may not have actually followed a cat but they’re still good at finding the track,” Dr Paltridge said.
Research is now being done on the impact of traditional fire management on the bilby population.
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