Wildlife Detection Dog Project

This project will train a small team of local landholders and their companion dogs in humane and ethical wildlife detection dog (WDD) techniques to support feral cat eradication on Kangaroo Island (KI). Feral cats prey heavily on KI native fauna and are primary vectors for livestock diseases that impact the profitability of Kangaroo Island sheep farmers. An accredited Australian WDD specialist will deliver five workshops with field exercise training, supported by the NRKI Feral Cat Team. Training will include mandatory animal welfare standards, target accuracy assessment, situational advice and refresher sessions, as well as the production of video training modules to facilitate on-going learning. The outcome will be the establishment of local trained community WDD teams with the capability to significantly enhance the long-term feral cat eradication program on KI.

 

Project background

A key target of the National Threatened Species Strategy is the eradication of feral cats on five priority Australian islands. Kangaroo Island has been selected as one of these five islands. As a result, the KI NRM Board received Australian Government funding in 2016 to commence a feral cat eradication program. This was supplemented by a grant under the Threatened Species Recovery Fund for the Felixer vs Felis project during 2018 and 2019. An additional $2 million has be allocated from the Australian Government’s Regional Land Partnerships program for the eradication of feral cats from the Dudley Peninsula from 2019-2023.

To date the KI feral cat eradication program (FCEP) has undertaken comprehensive trials of a suite of feral cat control devices in a range of landscapes, as well as research into cat density, distribution and behaviour, in order to plan how best to implement the island eradication program. A cat-proof barrier fence is scheduled to be constructed in 2019 across the narrow isthmus of the island in anticipation of the next stage of the program, which aims to eradicate feral cats from the Dudley Peninsula of KI. Trained wildlife detection dog teams would provide vital additional support for this ambitious task by supplementing the range of tools available to include a proven, highly efficient and effective means of locating cats that are skilled at avoiding other control methods or are in parts of the landscape that are difficult to access because of terrain or habitat.

The objective of completely eradicating KI of thousands of feral cats will require the use of all available tools and techniques, as well as the long-term involvement and support of the local community. Surveys demonstrate that islanders are currently extremely supportive of the eradication program and very keen to become involved. Harnessing this enthusiasm by engaging them in practical ways will be critical to achieving successful outcomes and maintaining support for the program. Working dogs and rural communities are intricately linked, and members of the KI farming community have become enamoured with the concept of using detector dogs for feral cat control. The WDD project aims to capitalize on this enthusiasm and opportunity by equipping farmers and other landholders with the necessary knowledge and capacity to participate meaningfully in a program that will simultaneously reduce livestock losses and production costs, and protect native fauna threatened by feral cat predation and disease transmission.

There are several documented examples of the use of wildlife detection dogs in successful feral animal eradication programs (see attachment 1); consequently they are achieving recognition as an essential ‘tool in the toolkit’ by island eradication experts. They can be deployed as an essential primary eradication tool because they are capable of performing in terrain and conditions that do not suit other feral animal control tools or methods, and they can efficiently cover huge search areas. As a result of their prowess, they can substantially shorten the eradication timeline, hence greatly improving the cost-effectiveness of an eradication program. Perhaps most importantly, detector dogs are capable of locating the last remaining individuals of a population that have evaded all other forms of capture, thereby guaranteeing complete extirpation of a population. WDD are also invaluable as a means for decisively verifying the success of an eradication program.

Research on KI undertaken during Stage 1 of the eradication program demonstrates that the feral cat population is high and that feral cats are abundant across all habitat types, including some of the densest vegetation on the island. It is therefore imperative that a combination of all methods of cat control be utilised during the eradication program on the Dudley Peninsula. Detection dogs will be necessary to control cats that cannot be trapped, shot, baited or targeted with a grooming trap.

The project will benefit both KI sheep farmers and the broader community because feral cats are the definitive hosts of Toxoplasmosis and Sarcosporidioisis. These two diseases have an estimated $2 million impact on the local sheep industry through lost productivity. Toxoplasmosis results in sheep miscarriages, birth defects and barren ewes. It can also be transmitted to humans, causing a range of health problems, and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. Toxoplasmosis also affects warm blooded native animals and is likely be having a large impact on threatened species populations. Sarcosporidiosis manifests as large cysts in sheep muscle tissue, resulting in abattoir carcass trimmings or rejection. This situation is so severe that one mainland abattoir refuses to process KI sheep carcasses. Current research demonstrates that there is a much greater prevalence of these two diseases on KI than mainland Australia and that this is probably due to the tenfold higher density of feral cats on KI. In addition, feral cats are the most significant predator of native fauna on the island, with studies demonstrating that they consume at least 50 species of birds, reptiles and mammals. This includes threatened species such as the Southern Brown Bandicoot and Kangaroo Island echidna. KI has a significant ecotourism industry predicated on its local wildlife that accounts for at least 50% of island GDP and attracts 200,000 visitors per annum. 

Once accredited and fully skilled, the detector dog teams could be trained to scent other species that represent a high biosecurity risk to Kangaroo Island, for deployment should circumstances demand. This is of considerable importance to KI, where rabbits and foxes are absent. Should these animals ever become established on the island, the agricultural industry, including graziers and free-range poultry farmers, would be significantly impacted, as would the island’s valuable biodiversity. Through the establishment of wildlife detector dog teams the island can be proactive in responding to emerging biosecurity threats in a highly efficient and cost-effective way by locating early incursions of any cryptic pest species before it reproduces and becomes established. This represents a significant value add to the project. 

 

Wildlife Detector Dog Workshops

After an initial request for expressions of interest from the public to be enrolled, with their dog, into a series of  training workshops with canine training specialist, Steve Austin a group of around twenty are undergoing regular training to develop their dog’s feral cat detection and tracking skills.

 

These workshops are ongoing and a report on the workshops and the dogs tracking ability will be published in due course.

 

 

 

Lead agency

Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management Board

Partners

Australian Government's National Landcare Program

More information

  • Feral Cat Team Leader
    Natural Resources Centre, Kingscote
    8553 4444
    kinrc@sa.gov.au