“Island Conservation” wins creative writing award

In September 2019, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs awarded Island Conservation $244,756 “to implement a showcase eco-system rehabilitation and restoration project in the UNESCO-designated Rock Island Southern Lagoon of Palau,” an archipelago of nearly 450 small islands in the western Pacific. The focus of the project was to be “removing invasive rats from the Ngemelis Island complex and promote the recovery of seabird populations.”

Seven months later, the non-profit appealed to OIA for nearly a quarter-million dollars more, this time to “remove” cats from Palau’s Ulong Island. One would expect such a request to be a detailed account explaining, among other things, why, before even getting underway, their original project had so expanded in its scope as to justify a budget twice the size of the original.

Apparently, though, such rigor is unnecessary—perhaps even unwelcome—at OIA. Instead, a little creativity seems to be the key to winning over the agency’s decision-makers. Less than one month after receiving the request, the agency awarded Island Conservation $239,922 “to eradicate feral cats in the Ulong Island area of the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon.”

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In late 2009, Sharon George was struggling to recruit participants for her master’s thesis. A student in the University of Cape Town’s conservation biology program at the time, George was studying the hunting habits of suburban Cape Town’s pet cats. Although she’d distributed 600 questionnaires, only 32 had been completed—a response rate George describes as “very poor” in her thesis [1].

“The project in general was very challenging because of the way many cat owners perceived it. The majority of cat owners were unwilling to participate in the study because they felt it was ‘against’ cats and would lead to extreme measures being taken to control cat numbers” [1].

It turns out, the majority of cat owners were not wrong about that.

George’s results were published online in July as part of a larger study, accompanied by a media release (PDF) warning that “the research highlights the need to address the impact of cat predation on Cape Town’s wildlife, particularly near protected areas such as the Table Mountain National Park.” This led (not surprisingly) to sensational headlines proclaiming “‘200,000-plus’ wild animals slaughtered in Table Mountain National Park by Cape Town cats each year” and “Apocalypse Miaow II: ‘Keep cats inside property’, SANParks urges Capetonians.”

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 “Ecological impact” and other baseless proclamations

It’s difficult to imagine now but when I started this blog—10 years ago Monday—I worried that I’d soon run out of material to write about. Not only is there no shortage of material, but these days—when facts are up for grabs and media accounts are prone to false equivalencies cultivated in the name of “balance”—Vox Felina’s mission seems more urgent than ever.

Something else that hasn’t changed over the past 10 years: the protectionist practices of editors green-lighting the publication of badly flawed research.

Perhaps it’s oddly appropriate, then, that the impetus for this post is the same one that prompted the blog’s inaugural post—and, indeed, the blog itself. Once again, my response to an article was quickly rejected by a journal.

Authors of the article, which was published recently in Animal Conservation, boldly claim that “pet cats around the world have an ecological impact greater than native predators but concentrated within ~100 m of their homes.”  Read more


Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries office posted a story on its website warning of “localized lethal outbreaks” of toxoplasmosis among endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This comes after one seal died as a result of infection with the parasite and another is being treated by NOAA Fisheries staff. In 2018, three others were reported to have died from toxoplasmosis.

“The first documented monk seal death due to toxoplasmosis occurred in 2001. The disease has now killed at least 12 monk seals, making it a leading threat to the main Hawaiian Islands population.”

It’s difficult to see how 12 mortalities over nearly 20 years constitutes a “leading threat.” Indeed, according to NOAA Fisheries’ own reports, the monk seal population in the Main Hawaiian Islands might actually be at an all-time high. Read more