Turning the tide on predators

Last updated 13:16 18/06/2012

"It's crazy and ambitious, but it might be worth a shot." Those were the words of Sir Paul Callaghan in his last public lecture in Wellington this year regarding the idea of getting rid of predators in New Zealand. For good...

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the Transit of Venus forum, brainchild of the late Sir Paul. His vision was to gather some of New Zealand's best scientists, scholars, humanitarians, thinkers and leaders (not to mention the awesome force of the Uawa locals from Tolaga Bay and the wider and very welcoming Gisborne community) in the place where New Zealand first truly came together as a nation. Seeing the transit of Venus happen was pretty special in itself, and I reckon it truly set the scene for a new way of thinking about how we do things in Godzone.

Transit of Venus from Tolaga Bay Wharf, 6th June 2012

I played a small part in the proceedings, pitching an idea that Sir Paul had become fond of, a "Predator Free New Zealand". There have been various iterations of this idea over the years, but it seems that currently all the stars are beginning to align on this concept, and perhaps it might not be as "crazy" as Sir Paul had initially proposed. The panel discussion was mostly in agreement that a predator-free New Zealand was a probably-very-achievable goal (over time) and that we had an imperative to act now before we lost even more of our native wildlife species. 

That whole thing about New Zealand being a "land without teeth" has really wreaked havoc on our wildlife. As soon as kiore (Polynesian rats) got here, tuatara disappeared off the mainland. After the rest of the predators arrived, so too did 42 per cent of our native birds, three species of lizards, three frog species, a species of bat and who knows how many invertebrates. That's how much we've already lost... But the flipside of that is that we've learnt quickly how to get predators OFF islands in order to provide some lifeboats of protection for our native wildlife. And we've got very good at it. So good at it, our DOC staff and wildlife experts are sought after in places like the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, the Subantarctic Islands and the Pacific Islands to help others work out how to deal to introduced predators. Many technical innovations in trapping and baiting have been developed by private companies in New Zealand, including a self-resetting trap.

Stoat kaka kill (Rod Morris)

And we've gone bananas in the scale of what we can achieve. In 1959, local Forest & Bird members in Auckland, with the help of a chap called Don Merton (who would later go on to save the black robin from extinction) and a five-pound grant from the NZ Wildlife Service, removed rats from a one-hectare island in the Hauraki Gulf to protect white-faced petrels. In 1986, conservation workers upped the ante, getting rats off the 170-hectare Breaksea Island. A new approach to predator control was born! In 2005, DOC declared the 11,000-hectare Campbell Island in the Subantarctics rat-free

The new frontier would be the real big stuff. Could we get rats, cats and possums off Stewart Island? (A community-initiated scoping report in 2007 thinks we probably could). What about the South Island? Ultimately, it is just another island, right?

We're a nation of people who don't cower in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Sir Edmund Hillary and Kate Sheppard would attest to that. Should we have a predator-free New Zealand as our "crazy and ambitious" goal and give it a crack? Sir Paul thought we should; he said it would be our own "Apollo Programme". I agree with him, and so, it seems, do many others.

To get to this point in New Zealand's history is pretty awesome. About 150 years ago, people sat around in rooms as members of Acclimatisation Societies, where they dreamed up which species of plants and animals they should bring to New Zealand to make it more like "home". These and other kinds of introductions have had catastrophic effects on our native wildlife. It seems only fitting that at the transit of Venus, the very event that led Captain Cook to the South Pacific and eventually on to New Zealand, we should be sitting in a room debating what animals to kick out!

So what would a predator-free New Zealand look like to you? Which animals would you kick out and which would hang on to? how do you draw the line?

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John B   #1   01:42 pm Jun 18 2012

NZ needs a nation wide ban on cats... cat ownership in a land of lfightless birds is a selfish indulgence.

Cats kill everything. Why can't we return the favour?

Russ   #2   02:14 pm Jun 18 2012

Yeah like that's going to happen John B despite your activites.

baygirl   #3   02:21 pm Jun 18 2012

Living in a nearby suburb the effect of Zealandia is amazing. Though I'd love to move back to the Bay for some sun its really noticeable the lack of native birds. We see tui and kaka daily and here the morepork most nights

Gloria   #4   02:56 pm Jun 18 2012

I'm sorry Nicola but this is the same old guff we have been subjected to for years in this country. The idea that we should try and turn back the environmental clock and return to how things were before people arrived. The 'predators' that you seek to annihilate have as much right to be in this country as you do. They are not trying to hurt you Nicola and they certainly aren't at fault for their circumstances. You put such a positive spin on mass slaughter your skills are wasted in conservation. Nationalism, by the way, is not just about excluding others and punishing transgressors, it's also about inclusion and acceptance of change and difference.

A more productive direction for environmental management in this country will be to accept that these 'new' species are now a part of this country and belong here (as per yourself). Let's not be fooled into thinking that once we have gotten rid of these 'predators' (defined as it is commonly seen in this country as introduced predatory mammals) we will be content at that. After that is achieved we will begin working our way down the foodchain until all of the thousands of foreigners (in many taxa there are now more introduced species than natives, but you only talk about losses) are finally gotten rid of and we can rest assured that the environment is back to its pre-human state.

To sum up, I do think you're crazy. But not because what you are suggesting is impossible (humans are capable of unbelievable destruction) but because it is so utterly brutal, unimaginative and retrospective. I, for one, am not fooled by your folksy rhetoric.

Karlos   #5   02:57 pm Jun 18 2012

If we could get NZ predator free, how long could we keep it that way?

A friend of mine works at a company that receive their goods in containers. MAF used to check the containers for pests etc. before releasing them, but now (after cost cuts) it's up to my friends company to check them once they've been delivered. This means they're relying on employees to thoroughly inspect each container when they are already under pressure from head office to quickly get the goods out and delivered. Also - they can't even check underneath the containers because they're sitting on the ground! According to some sources, a lot of pests are found underneath or on top of containers, not inside them. Scary.

Sam   #6   03:16 pm Jun 18 2012

John B - that's exactly what is needed. If us NZers are serious about conserving our endemic species, this is the step we need to take. Or at the very least create a law insisting cats must wear bells around their necks, this will give the birds a chance to fly away or at least run away.

Frank   #7   03:44 pm Jun 18 2012

I LOVE the idea of predator free - but can we do it without killing the remaining wildlife ie use traps and not poison?

El Jorge   #8   03:50 pm Jun 18 2012

@John B #1

I will join your crusade, am sitting my firearms licence test tonight.

Emily   #9   04:04 pm Jun 18 2012

Dogs have to be kept contained, so why not cats? (it would require more than just a fence of course) I would love to NZ cat-free but I know there's far too many cat lovers for that to ever happen so we need stricter rules around keeping animals that threaten our native wildlife. What we need first is a change of mindset of NZers. And cat-lovers if you kept your cat in an enclosure it would be safer for them too! no risk of getting run over or mauled by dogs etc. The SPCA keeps their cats indoors so why can't everyone? Our native biodiversity should take priority.

Brad   #10   04:37 pm Jun 18 2012

Gloria #4. Are you serious? NIcola, love the idea but I can't see how it would work without the support of every single person in the country. Every landowner, every pet owner, etc. The best we can hope for is fenced sanctuaries in the centre of our national parks and a massive team of volunteers to monitor them. The self setting traps are a game changer, but only slightly.

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