3 July 2014
By Oliver Millman, the Guardian
The government has appointed Australia’s first threatened species commissioner, with the official to oversee the launch of a new lethal baiting program aimed at killing feral cats.
Gregory Andrews has been named as the new commissioner, fulfilling a pledge made by the Coalition at the election.
Andrews, a public servant and former diplomat, will work in a non-statutory, advisory role to oversee the “development, implementation and reporting of threatened species recovery programs”.
While Andrews will have no power to intervene in development decisions, such as mining or logging, which may affect the habitat of native species, he will work with scientists on strategies to reverse the precipitous decline of Australia’s native species.
Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with an estimated 75 million native animals, such as birds and small marsupials, estimated to die at the claws and teeth of feral cats every day.
These cats, descended from domesticated cats, have become a major killer of animals across Australia, especially in areas of Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Greg Hunt, the environment minister, said a new poisoned bait, called Curiosity, will be developed as an “effective and humane” way to target feral cats.
The bait comprises a small meat-based sausage which contains a plastic pellet filled with toxin. Feral cats, which do not have molar teeth and do not chew their food, will swallow the bait whole and be sent into a “long, endless sleep”, according to Hunt.
Native animals tend to nibble their food so will reject the pellet, which will contain a new toxin called para-aminopropiophenone, or PAPP, developed by Australian scientists. Hunt said the RSPCA considers the bait to be humane.
Andrews will work to promote the rollout of the toxin, as well increase awareness of threatened species and the government’s new “green army” of young people who will work on environmental projects.
He will be assisted by a new ministerial council, which will include Atticus Fleming, the head of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and Rachel Lowry, the director of wildlife conservation at Zoos Victoria.
According to the environment department there are nearly 400 species that are endangered, vulnerable or conservation dependent in Australia.
“Every year millions of dollars are spent in an attempt to reverse the trend in decline of Australia’s threatened species,” Hunt said.
“Despite significant investment across all levels of government, the private sector and non-government organisations, there are a growing number of native animals and plants facing the threat of extinction.”
Hunt told reporters the government would be taking a more thorough approach to eradicating threats such as feral cats but would ensure that they did not unleash toxins that threatened native wildlife.
He added that the government would work with private organisations to fund wildlife “island arks” containing threatened species such as bilbies, bandicoots and quolls.
Several conservation groups have welcomed the Coalition’s threatened species commissioner plan, although there is criticism over the scope of Andrews’ role.
“A radical new approach is needed to save our most vulnerable species yet the threatened species commissioner will have no real power,” said Brendan Sydes, chief executive of Environmental Justice Australia.
“Greg Hunt has confirmed that the commissioner won’t be able to do anything more than encourage co-operation between states. It’s difficult to see how the commissioner will affect any meaningful results.”
Sydes said the commissioner, who only has guaranteed funding for the first year, could find that his advice is simply ignored by the government.
“The independence of the role is compromised with the axe poised to strike as soon as the commissioner takes any position the government disagrees with,” he said.
“The government is under no obligation to accept any recommendations from the commissioner anyway. The model is flawed from the outset.”
Greens leader Christine Milne said: Without powers and independence, all we are seeing is a public servant who will be overseeing further deterioration.
BirdLife Australia, which has provided its head of conservation, Samantha Vine, to Hunt’s ministerial panel, was more upbeat.
“A champion for threatened species within government will help to ensure our recovery efforts and funding programs are more strategic and, importantly, throw a lifeline for Australia’s threatened birds such as the Regent Honeyeater, Orange-bellied Parrot and Western Ground Parrot,” said Paul Sullivan, the chief executive of BirdLife Australia.
“We need to achieve real on-ground outcomes — more living things. BirdLife Australia wants to help the commissioner take the recovery plans back off the shelf and take some action to put more teams into the field to save some threatened species”.