Emails reveal a top Department of Conservation scientist's frustration over lack of cat control plan

Emails obtained by Newshub show a senior Department of Conservation (DoC) scientist is asking why the department isn't doing more to control one of New Zealand's worst ecological problems - cats.

They also show the frustration over a lack of leadership on the issue.

A kea makes light work of a cardboard box or a tramping pack but it doesn't stand a chance against a cat.

"We've got a very large carnivore species that we're at the moment not addressing in a coordinated way," said Kea Conservation Trust chairperson Tamsin Orr-Walker.

Cats are a well-known threat to DoC's top scientists - not only for eating birds but also for the parasite in its poo which DoC identifies as a key threat to Hector's and Māui dolphins. That's because toxoplasmosis washes out to the sea.

In an email chain discussing its research, DoC staff raised the question of which government agency is in charge of cat eradication.

The department's marine science advisor Anton van Helden wrote: "It seems to me this is a critical issue that needs to be addressed - if no one will take ownership then we are in real trouble."

DoC science advisor Graeme Taylor asked "is it in the too hard basket?", to which van Helden replied "no agency has the official mandate, so everyone is waiting for someone else to take the lead".

Feral cats are juggled by DoC, the Ministry for Primary Industries and local government.

"There's a lack of strategy for feral cats and a lack of research for how many are out there," said Predator Free New Zealand Trust chief executive Jessi Morgan.

Rare species threatened by cats include hoiho, pateke, brown kiwi, kea, oystercatchers and various skinks and geckos. DoC's veteran scientist added "I think that's a sufficient list to justify spending some resources and for DoC to lead on this".

And then there's the political hot potato of pet moggies. Gareth Morgan famously launched the campaign to wipe out cats a decade ago.

His daughter Jessi says the dialogue has matured since then.

"It's not a controversial thing anymore and we need to recognise that New Zealand is ready for the conversation," said Jessi Morgan.

In the emails obtained by Newshub, veteran DoC science advisor Graeme Taylor said there are lots of pockets within DoC trying to tackle cats, but because cats are not included in Predator-Free 2050 - they lack the political clout. Translation: no one wants to touch New Zealander's precious cats.

Conservationists say DoC should be taking the lead on eradicating feral cats. And as for our pets - they say rules for cat owners are urgently needed.

But that requires the slow process of legislative change. Time that our rare birds don't have.