One island at a time

CAITLIN SYKES
Last updated 05:00 17/12/2012

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New Zealand’s conservation efforts lie at the heart of our value proposition as a nation, reckons Dr James Russell.

An internationally recognised University of Auckland conservation researcher, whose work has focused on preventing rats and other pests from invading predator-free islands, Russell recently won the Prime Minister’s 2012 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize.

Here he talks to Unlimited about how we’re faring in the fight against pests — and why that matters to our economy.

Why is your work important to New Zealand?

A colleague of mine, [wildlife ecologist] John Innes at Landcare Research, showed just through back of the envelope calculations that 26 million New Zealand forest birds are killed every year by introduced pests. That's an environmental catastrophe.

Our conservation underpins our national identity. When people think of New Zealand they think of beautiful conservation. That makes them want to be tourists here and it makes them want to buy our products. 

If you take away our conservation, if you let that slip, then we become just another island somewhere that's really expensive to fly to and doesn't have much.

The Department of Conservation got a consulting company to do a cost benefit analysis and it worked out that pest control in New Zealand currently costs $840 million a year, but the damage those same pests do to our economy every year is $2.5 billion. So the argument for making New Zealand predator free, which is the 50-year aspirational goal, would show a real cost benefit.

So how are we faring in the fight against pests?

If you look at the mainland, you take the possums out and they’re back the next year; you take the rats out, they're back the next year and more birds are disappearing. 

That's the nature of it. If you can't do eradication, you can only do control and you're locked in this perpetuity. We have to keep investing and that's why we want to move towards eradication. 

But if you look at what we’ve done on islands around New Zealand the graph is just exponential. In the 1960s the island area we were eradicating pests from was 10 hectares; in the 1970s it was 100 ha; in the 1980s it was 1000 ha and by the 2000s it was 10,000 ha. 

We're doing it one island at a time and we're doing it well and we're keeping the pests off afterwards.

What’s your vision?

I think the vision starts with New Zealanders agreeing with what they want. Becoming pest free isn’t the goal; wanting to become pest free is the first goal. 

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As New Zealanders we need to agree that we want protected, forested, reserved areas without rats and stoats so that we can enjoy them. The challenge is just getting everyone aligned.

It's a decision we have to make. If it's important to you to have a pest free New Zealand, put a rat trap out in your backyard and you'll be making New Zealand more predator free. The returns are so fast.

- Unlimited

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