Making New Zealand predator-free seems like an impossible goal. Shane Cowlishaw meets the man tasked with making it happen.

For many, it would easily be labelled the toughest job in New Zealand.

Just take a drive down any rural stretch of State Highway 1 and you get a glimpse of its scale.

Squashed possums are everywhere, and they’re only part of the problem.

When the Government announced a goal to rid New Zealand of predators by 2050, many scoffed.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t want it to succeed, even if they doubt its chances.

The man who has been placed in charge of achieving the impossible is, well, a businessman.

Ed Chignell has spent the past 37 years building up arboriculture company Treescape with friend Brandon Whiddett.

At 17, a young Ed had dreams of studying physical education, and applied to Otago University.

But a rejection letter threw his plans into turmoil so he joined Whiddett doing odd jobs around Auckland.

Realising there was a market for tree care, they narrowed their focus and the pair has slowly built the company from small beginnings to a Trans-Tasman juggernaut employing almost 600 staff.

After decades grinding away in an office and now aged 54, Chignell decided it was time to step away and focus on other interests.

That included conservation work after finding great pleasure in Treescape’s own efforts in the area, especially in helping restore the native ecology on Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

“I was at the stage where I was thinking I might do something different so I’d actually told the board I was going to retire, I’d given them a six-month leave period, and then this job came up.”

That job is chief executive of Predator Free 2050, a new organisation set up by the Government to manage its ambitious programme of removing rats, stoats, and possums from the mainland.

It’s a bold goal, and an expensive one. With only $28 million in funding for the first four years it’s going to lean heavily on the business and lobbying skills of its leader.

Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf, where Treescape has been part of restoration work. Photo: Supplied

Like climbing Mt Everest

Chignell has a vigorous, Trumpian handshake, jerking you inwards and off-balance.

But it’s a friendly motion, rather than a display of dominance.

He admits to being slightly nervous about being interviewed. He has yet to officially start in his role (he will begin next month) and is even yet to meet Conservation Minister Maggie Barrie.

But he is itching to get started and is travelling the country, meeting with those from the public and private sector whom he hopes to bring together on the project.

Putting his business career aside, it was likely his parents’ move to Northland that first stoked his interest in conservation.

His father was a deputy principal in Auckland, but feeling the need to change he resigned and moved to Whangaruru to start a fishing business.

Chignell believes it was his father’s upbringing on the Kaipara Harbour, where his grandfather first settled in 1906, that called him back to Northland.

“Their whole existence was pretty much living off the land and off the sea and around the bush and he sort of carried that sort of feel with our family.”

Armed with a great appreciation for New Zealand’s natural heritage, something resonated when he first saw the job with Predator Free 2050 advertised.

Despite this, Chignell did have some reservations about moving from the private to the public sector and dealing with officialdom.

But after reading the cabinet paper and looking at the make-up of the board, he was convinced.

“When it was announced on national TV that the Government was wanting to go predator-free by 2050 everyone goes ‘that sounds like a big task, how are you going to do that’, but it’s the first government that I’ve ever seen, and I was around since Rob Muldoon, who were actually going to make a statement like that.”

It’s a massive statement, and Chignell says it will be a battle.

To get there, a lot of goodwill and co-operation will be needed along with the nous to get a company up and running and manage its complicated interests.

Yet he believes he’s the man for the job.

“This is a programme where we have to deliver things by 2050 and it’s very ambitious, sort of like climbing Mt Everest, and it’s going to need a lot of planning and collaboration.”

“I’m going to do my very, very best, and that’s how I’ve always operated. If I do that, I can’t ask for anything else.”

Achieving the impossible on a budget

Upon launching the Predator Free 2050 initiative, the Government announced funding of $28m spread over four years.

It was on top of more than $70m a year already spent on predator control, but many struggled to see how such a lofty goal could be achieved with such a small slice of the monetary pie.

The Green Party estimated the actual cost of ridding New Zealand of pests is closer to $9 billion, proposing a “taonga levy” on international tourists to help raise the cash.

Some academics have also questioned whether the goal is achievable at all, with Victoria University’s Wayne Linklater writing that the real cost would be closer to $32b.

“It can’t be done. Predator Free 2050 was described as a ‘moon shot’ but, actually, it’s an Andromeda Galaxy shot – unattainable,” he said.

Chignell is not stupid, he knows many doubt the task will be achieved.

But he believes it can be done, if everyone starts working together.

“This is a programme where we have to deliver things by 2050 and it’s very ambitious, sort of like climbing Mt Everest, and it’s going to need a lot of planning and collaboration.”

Perhaps already adapting to his public-facing role, he deftly dodges questions about whether the current funding is enough, or whether the Greens’ estimate is accurate.

“My view is we’ve got a small amount of money at this time, $28m … but it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a matter of us building on what we’ve got and making sure we do what we do well and go from there.”

That building will include attracting corporate and philanthropic organisations to the cause, with Chignell’s first task to create a robust plan that he can use to convince potential investors the goal is achievable.

It will tackle the initiative’s interim goals, which include eradicating predators from blocks of at least 20,000ha without the use of fences and achieving a science breakthrough capable of wiping out at least one small predator.

He believes that will likely come in the form of genetic science, perhaps rendering said predator infertile.

If all goes well, New Zealand’s natural environment will flourish and employment opportunities will appear in the regions for those trained in pest eradication.

And if it doesn’t? Well, it’s best not to think about what that would mean to New Zealand, Chignell says.

“You’re talking about the treasures of New Zealand, it’s our national heritage, our flora and our fauna are part of who we are.

“I’m going to help, there’s a whole lot of people who have been doing stuff for a long time and I’m just here because of what they’ve done. I want to roll up my sleeves, and I want to help.”

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