Scientists in Australia have developed a technique for protecting native animals from the country’s soaring population of feral cats: inject the wildlife with a tiny implant that is highly poisonous to felines.
Australia’s bushland is populated by millions of feral cats, which prey on small native creatures and are believed to have left about 120 species at risk of extinction.
The cats are descendants of domestic pets brought to the continent by European settlers.
To protect the native species, researchers at the University of South Australia have produced a small implant – about the size of a grain of rice – that can be injected into the animals but will be harmful only to feral cats.
The implant contains a toxin which is made from seeds of native plants and covered by a protective coating.
"[The implant] has got a toxin in the middle, and then it's got a special coating around the outside so that we can make the animals toxic to cats," Anton Blencowe, a chemistry expert, told ABC News. "But at the same time [we can] make sure the implant is not toxic to native animals."
The trial of the implants follows a plan by the federal government to cull two million feral cats by 2020 to try to protect endangered native species.
The cull, which is underway, involves methods such as baiting, shooting, trapping and Aboriginal hunting.
However, David Peacock, a conservation biologist, said the big threat to native animals was from individual “killer cats” which can cause widespread damage before they were caught.
"One cat can do what we call catastrophic predation, where you have one cat going through your population, eating it and killing it and wiping it out," he told ABC News. "So if you can stop it at the first event, you stop that cat basically wiping out your animals.”
Australia has an estimated 20 million feral cats – each of which kills about 1,000 native animals a year.
The researchers say that the implants will turn native animals into “a Trojan” to improve their chances of survival.
“For every native animal that is unfortunately attacked and eaten by a cat, hundreds of other native animals will be saved thanks to the implant,” say the researchers on a crowdfunding page to raise money for the research.