A lethal bait called "curiosity", designed to kill feral cats, will be a priorityof a new national commissioner to save threatened species.
On Wednesday Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced the new commissioner would be Gregory Andrews - a former diplomat who currently works for the federal Environment Department - as part of a CSIRO-backed review of the dire health of native mammals.
Mr Hunt said the commissioner's first act would be developing a list of priority actions to stop the speedy decline of the country's threatened species. As part of that the commissioner would champion the next stage of the development of the curiosity bait, he said.
"We know feral cats kill millions of mammals every night. The curiosity bait has the potential to make a real difference to the protection and recovery of our native species," Mr Hunt said.
Curiosity has been developed and trialled by the federal, Victorian and West Australian environment departments, with a private biotech company, for many years. For it to be rolled out widely it would need to be commercialised and registered with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
The independent review, launched on Wednesday, provided the first comprehensive assessment of the status of more than 400 native land and marine mammals. It found that 56 species, and 36 subspecies, were threatened with extinction, with feral cats the greatest threat to native mammals. It was recently estimated that feral cats destroy 75 million native animals every night.
The curiosity bait contains a toxin that halts the flow of oxygen in the blood and is considered a more humane way to kill feral cats. It is implanted into a small piece of meat shaped like a chipolata sausage.
Proponents say curiosity can reduce feral cat numbers by 80 per cent. But it is less likely to be eaten by native animals because unlike cats, they nibble and chew their food and therefore are more likely to reject the bait.
Dr Andrew Burbidge, chairman of the Western Australian Threatened Species Scientific Committee, said more research was needed to determine which other animals might be at risk from the bait, such as marsupial carnivores.
There would have to be restrictions on where the bait could be used, especially in urban areas where people kept cats as pets, he said.
Fenced areas that kept out feral cats were necessary to save the most critically endangered mammals in the short-term, he added.
But for native mammal populations to recover sufficiently, Dr Burbidge said feral felines needed to be eliminated from the entire continent, something that was likely to be achievable only through a genetically engineered disease that killed or sterilised the pests.
Professor John Woinarski from Charles Darwin University said trials of the bait were showing promise in many places.
"It's early days in the trials and it hasn't been demonstrated that it's completely harmless to other species but it's better than anything else going around," he said.
Establishing a threatened species commissioner was an election pledge of the Coalition. Mr Hunt said the commissioner would work with the community to increase awareness of threatened species and co-ordinate protection plans.
Mr Hunt said on Wednsday that the commissioner would also contributed to a ''streamlining'' of endangered species recovery efforts and advise on where to best target the work of landcare and green army projects on habitat protection.
Mr Andrews will be supported by an expert advisory panel, the first four members of which are: Professor Helene Marsh, chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee; Atticus Fleming who is head of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy; Rachel Lowry, director of wildlife conservation and science at Zoos Victoria; Samantha Vine, head of conservation for BirdLife Australia.
The response from environment groups to the appointment and position description ranged from quiet support to complaint that the commissioner had no actual power.
Chief executive of Environmental Justice Australia, Brendan Sydes, said rather than a powerless commissioner Australian environment laws needed to be strengthened. He said the commissioner role was not enshrined in law, their advice could be ignored and the position could be abolished any time that Mr Andrews took a position the government did not like.
“A radical new approach is needed to save our most vulnerable species yet the Threatened Species Commissioner will have no real power,'' Mr Sydes said.
BirdLife Australia chief executive Paul Sullivan welcomed the appointment, saying a champion for threatened species in the government would help ensure recovery efforts and funding programs are more strategic.