Christmas Island winning war against feral cats

Bid to stop them from killing native species, hurting tourism leads to fall in feline numbers

There are about 100 pet cats on Christmas Island, which all have to be neutered and microchipped. Some of them are identifiable by a tattoo of a circle and a line in their ears, such as the one in the photo.
There are about 100 pet cats on Christmas Island, which all have to be neutered and microchipped. Some of them are identifiable by a tattoo of a circle and a line in their ears, such as the one in the photo.ST PHOTO: ADELINE CHIA

On tiny Christmas Island, south of Java, the authorities have been waging a battle against feral cats, whose voracious appetite led to the decline of native species and threatened to harm the island's tourist trade.

The island, which once belonged to Singapore and where most of the residents are of Singaporean and Malaysian parentage, seems to be winning the war as cat numbers have plunged.

The latest operation, involving the deployment of about 20,000 poisoned sausages dangling about 40cm above the ground, ended last month. They were laced with a poison called Eradicat.

Although there are no official numbers, the cat population has gone from "cats everywhere", as one islander put it, to only neutered domestic cats slinking around residential areas.

Wildlife is a crucial factor which pulls 1,200 to 1,500 tourists each year. About 1,500 people live on the island, which is most famous for the annual migration of the endemic red crabs from December to January, where wave upon wave of crabs descend to the sea from the hills to spawn.

"Among the leisure visitors, almost 100 per cent of them are here for nature... diving and birdwatching," said Ms Karenn Singer, manager of the Christmas Island tourist office.

Ms Angela Jones, 67, who owns three tourist lodges on the island, applauded the cat-purging campaign. "Christmas Island is about birds, not cats," she said. "The biggest tourist groups are birdwatchers, we get them all through the year." A major draw is the island's native seabirds, such as the golden bosun that appears on the Christmas Island flag. The pretty bird has a long, thin tail that trails behind like streamers.

Mr Dion Maple, 36, natural resource manager in Parks Australia in Christmas Island, said the evidence against feral cats causing harm to island ecology is "absolutely conclusive".

"There are loads of cases around the world where cats on islands have helped wipe out species," he said.

"On Christmas Island, cats have been implicated in the decline and extinction of a number of different animals."

Cats, which are not native to the island, were first introduced by early European settlers as pets in the late 1800s, when phosphate was first discovered and mined. The cats proliferated on the island, which, at 135 sq km, is about a fifth the size of Singapore.

A former British colony, Christmas Island was administered from Singapore, with the laws of Singapore applying to the island, until 1958, when its sovereignty was transferred to Australia after a goodwill compensation to Singapore of £2.33 million.

Over the years, the cats have eaten their way through the native wildlife. Among the main victims were the forest and coastal skinks, which are extinct. Cats also hunt the island's ground-nesting seabirds, such as the endangered white-tailed tropic bird, and foraging forest birds, such as the imperial pigeon, a dark grey bird with an iridescent sheen.

They also threaten the island's endemic flying fox, "our last native mammal out of five found on the island at the time of human settlement", said Mr Maple. Listed as critically endangered, an estimated 1,500 of these fruit bats are left in the wild.

The National Park agency and researchers are assessing the ecological changes following the removal of the cats.

But Mr Maple said he has already seen an improvement.

"I see more birds around, greater survivorship. Take the bird's nest next to the jetty," he said, referring to a tree hollow where white-tailed tropic birds like to lay eggs.

"In the past, every year, chicks would get eaten by a cat. But, for the last two to three years, they have fledged and survived. There has been a direct change."

For the moment, the five-year battle seems to be won.

Pet cats, limited to two a household, have to be registered and neutered. There are about 100 registered cats on the island, all of which have microchips inserted under their skin. Some are recognisable by a tattoo of a circle and a line in their ears.

Cat lovers on the island have a different view of the cull. During the pet cat registration phase, Malaysian-born Ubaidah Abdullah, 47, said she had cried when three kittens were taken away by the authorities. She was allowed to keep two cats and one kitten.

"I love animals," said the housewife in Malay. "When you feel sad, you can talk to them and you feel better."

Her island-born husband, Mr Rosli Akip, 49, said the cat-killing is cruel. "You know animals," the electrician said. "Cats eat birds. It's their nature. And how many birds can they eat anyway?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline 'Christmas Island winning war against feral cats'. Subscribe