Novel nature's little helpers

Last updated 15:42 30/01/2013

New Zealanders have long prided ourselves in our "Number 8 wire" approach to problem-solving and innovation. Our creativity in overcoming challenges has resulted in such excellent inventions as the electric fence, the Hamilton jetboat and the tranquilliser gun, to name just a few.

For people working in conservation, the need to be inventive is just part of the deal. Long trips away in the bush, limited budgets and constant isolation are some of the factors that drive the pursuit of home-grown innovation to help our native wildlife thrive. I always remember Don Merton (the man who saved the black robin) saying that he and the wildlife staff would use heated tins of bully beef to keep black robin eggs warm when the rangers were translocating them to other nests.

I thought I'd put a list together of some of best conservation inventions I've come across in New Zealand.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.

Seed shooting gun to save native kakabeak

Though many of us have versions of the crimson-bloomed native kakabeak plant at home, it turns out that it is not doing so well in the wild. In fact there are only 109 of the wild species remaining, due to its palatability to browsing mammals such as deer, rabbits and possums. So members of the Forest Life Restoration Trust came up with a way to shoot kakabeak seeds into the soil on cliff faces, out of the reach of browsing mammals and giving the native plants a chance to survive. You can watch a video about their approach here.

A few years ago I remember some rangers using a paintball gun (paintballs filled with pesticide) to shoot at weeds on tricky clifftops on Mana Island.

Fake gannet colonies
Gannet touch-up

Because introduced mammals such as stoats, rats, ferrets, possums, dogs, pigs and yes, cats (don't mention the war!) have made life difficult and in some cases impossible for our native wildlife to survive - the key to protecting much of our native wildlife is in having predator-free areas such as offshore islands.

The problem is trying to attract some wildlife to live there, such as seabirds. In the case of gannets, DOC staff and volunteers have created concrete and fibreglass gannets on islands such as Mana Island near Wellington and Motuora Island in the Hauraki Gulf in the hope that gannets flying past will think it's hot property and go down to nest. The Mana Island concrete colony has recently had a spruce-up, but no gannets have nested there, while the Motuora Island fibreglass colony yielded a pleasant result of the first gannet chick this month.

Volunteers on Mana Island gave the resident concrete gannets a makeover last year in the hope of them finally encouraging real gannets to come down and breed there.


Kakapo breeding inventions

The comical antics of the kakapo seem to have brought out the humour of the conservation inventors with some of the funniest innovations I think I have seen. The biggest problem for dealing with a species with a limited gene pool such as the kakapo is how to collect and monitor sperm in order to then manage your breeding birds. With the shy, nocturnal kakapo this is notoriously difficult, except of course that there is an errant kakapo who has grown up with a real "love" of humans. Perhaps the internationally renowned antics of Sirocco the kakapo could aid the recovery of the species?

Kakapo helmet

First off the blocks has to be the "ejaculation" helmet. This helmet was covered in condom-like rubber dimples with the idea that perhaps some valuable sperm might be able to be collected. It wasn't particularly successful, but if you don't quite believe me and you'd like to see it for yourself, by all means head to the "Blood, Earth and Fire" exhibition at Te Papa.

Along the same line of thought, a remote-controlled kakapo truck was built to try to attract kakapo males, but this too now lives at Te Papa.

kakapo truck

While comical inventions certainly raise our eyebrows and a smile, some other conservation innovations that have occured in the past few years may well help us fight the battle for our wildlife in meaningful ways. Like for example the "Goodnature" guys, who invented and developed a new type of trap that resets itself (using gas canisters), giving the trap multiple chances to kill a stoat, rat or possum, rather than just one, as all traps in the past have done. Still more innovations around new toxins and new methods of pest control are in the pipeline and are desperately needed if we want to turn the tide on introduced predators and give our wildlife a chance to thrive again.

Do you know of any other hard-case nature inventions? I'd love to hear about them.

» Please feel free to email me to send me your questions, feedback, ideas or photographs for In Our Nature blog posts. You can also join the In Our Nature Facebook page.

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