Opinion: Is this the future of Predator-Free NZ?

With no predators, would New Zealand's native birds, lose their survival tendencies? (File photo)

With no predators, would New Zealand's native birds, lose their survival tendencies? (File photo)

OPINION: It is New Year's Day 2050. Kiwis gather over summer barbecues to celebrate the first half century of the third millennium.

Festive conversations compete with a cacophony of kaka, kokako and korimako choruses. Wekas dodge flying flip-flops as they scrounge sauce-sodden sausages from careless children.

Predator-Free New Zealand (PFNZ) has been an outstanding success.  Stoats, rats and possums have been exterminated from our evergreen ecosystems.

Rats are considered one of the top three predators in New Zealand, and are one of the targets for the Predator Free 2050 ...

Rats are considered one of the top three predators in New Zealand, and are one of the targets for the Predator Free 2050 goal. (File photo)

Native birds, lizards and insects flourish free from predation, while tuatara tempt teens to tag them, turtle-like in their immobility and indifference to the inquisitive.

*Government sets target to make New Zealand 'predator-free' by 2050
*Predator-free New Zealand 'unrealistic' - NZ First
*National boosts Predator Free campaign by $69m
*Can New Zealand really be pest-free?
*Predator free New Zealand by 2050: will it work?

Offshore, cargo ships queue in quarantine zones; as they wait for decontamination.  Trading partners treat this as a targeted tariff, as pest control costs are imputed into imports. 

Biosecurity staff release multiple malevolent microdrones to excavate and exterminate elusive rats and mice from the bilge to the bridge of every boat.

The zing of lethal darts zaps each and every invader, as the government possessively protects its $10 billion multi-decade investment in PFNZ. 

From AI to GM, robots and gene drives have seemingly eradicated all predators from every farm, forest, factory, park, office, school and home.

Kiwis gladly pay the inflated cost of import goods as a sacrifice for saving species.

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They are also supportive of the loss of property rights. 

In 2029, in response to outraged economists and environmentalists at mushrooming conservation costs, the government grants PFNZ automatic 24/7 entry into every property.

Civil liberties were suspended soon after in 2030, as those suspected of protecting pet possums, shielding stoats, or resisting by rescuing rats were put into temporary detention centres, whilst their places were vanquished of vermin.

But PFNZ teetered on a knife edge in 2032 as plagues of mice erupted in rural areas when rat and stoat numbers nose-dived. 

A failure to anticipate ecological effects led PFNZ to reverse gene drives to rebuild rat and stoat populations, as the public outcry grew when masses of mice invaded homes, shops, and schools.

Cats illegally bred by animal rights activists were released into the wild to control mice, provoking hysterical condemnation from Morganites who now led the government.

Surreptitious surveillance by an armada of microdrones filming, and scanning, each citizen's mandatory microchip, began in 2034 to stymie the growing resistance movement.

The election in 2035 was thus dominated by the governing Adherents and the Adaptionist parties, which had morphed from the old political groupings.

Adherents to PFNZ sought to protect the taxpayer billions by any means necessary; using this as a smoke screen for greater state control in a society disrupted by sea level rise and flotillas of Australian boat people fleeing climate change wildfires and civil collapse across the ditch.

Adaptionists horrified at the lethal autonomous AI drone fleet traversing the Tasman to destroy desperate dinghies, campaigned for an end to PFNZ. 

They argued that all the community pest control which burgeoned from the 2010s had relieved enough predation pressure to enable some species like tui to adapt to predators.  Others trapped in evolutionary blind allies like kakapo and tuatara could never adapt. Adaptionists believed they should be protected in perpetuity on offshore islands and within fenced sanctuaries.

They traced the PFNZ dystopia to a 2017 report by the Parliamentary Environment Commissioner. The outgoing commissioner did not investigate alternatives to PFNZ in protecting native birds.  Adaptation and rapid evolution were ignored in a polemic that did not consider PFNZ's ecological and social implications. The opportunity to have an informed public discourse about how best to protect our threatened native birds was lost, and the full range of evolutionary possibility was slammed shut. 

Strident advocates on both the PFNZ and anti-1080 sides made sure there was no room for thoughtful ecological science.  Ironically, evolution would come back to haunt PFNZ.

In 2037, populations of previously undetected rats exploded.  These had predictably evolved immunity to gene drives, and adapted to hide so close to humans that they avoided the drone force. 

The resistance released reverse gene drives for cats, possums and ferrets in 2038.  A software failure caused by resistance hackers disabled the border drones, enabling rodent-infested cargo ships and boat people onto our shores.  Civil unrest became worse than the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Native bird species, which had exploded at PFNZ's initial success, declined dramatically as predators increased.  The genetic variants that had enabled adaptation under predator selection pressure had been swamped when PFNZ appeared to work. 

Those predator-avoidance behaviours, including nesting in inaccessible sites, had been diminished as they had no longer conferred a survival advantage.  More predator-naïve birds flourished as they were more successful in obtaining food than their more wary and cautious brethren.

Native birds were now worse off than before PFNZ.

By 2040, PFNZ appeared to be over, but the damage was done.  The Adherent Government declared martial law in 2041 and crushed the resistance by 2043.

In 2050, New Zealand was predator-free but society was not.  It was a tragic outcome from Sir Paul Callaghan's "moon shot" vision in 2012.

Sir Paul was right: PFNZ is a crazy idea.  He may well be wrong though; that it is an idea worth trying. 

That would be an appropriate question for a Royal Commission on the future of our biodiversity.

Ecologist Dr Steve Urlich published research in the NZ Journal of Ecology on rapid adaption in native birds in 2014.  The views expressed in this article are personal and do not represent those of the Marlborough District Council, where he is employed.

 - The Marlborough Express


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