New Zealanders like to show the world how to do things properly, so we don’t want to stop with the job of eradicating predators only half done, says Dr James Russell

Ours is a country of quaint obsessions: rugby, DIY, pavlova. We’ve recently become internationally renowned for another: wanting to completely eradicate rats, stoats and possums from the entire country and so create a predator-free New Zealand.

Predator Free New Zealand is a growing movement supported by individuals, communities, companies, councils, and government. Like our other obsessions, this one is steeped in history, all the way back to when New Zealanders first realised these introduced species were causing untold damage to our native species and ecosystems. Over the last century New Zealand has eradicated invasive predators from 10 percent of its offshore island area. While this is a great achievement, the threat of reinvasion never really goes away unless we finally clear all of New Zealand of all pests.

The vision going forward is to eliminate invasive predators from the entire country. Getting there is complex but I believe it is possible, involving – among other strategies – very large eco-sanctuaries, plus thousands of small projects that will together merge eradication and control concepts on landscape scales.

We are lucky in New Zealand that we have a long history of protecting our native species, and from this we can draw great knowledge in our journey to becoming predator free. As stoats and rats spread throughout the country in the 1800s, naturalists noted the simultaneous decline in bird species. In the late 1800s, pioneering New Zealand conservationists like Richard Henry were already taking kākāpō and kiwi to offshore islands to save them from the ravages of stoats and rats, only to be thwarted when the predators swam out to those islands.

Takahē were rediscovered in the Murchison Mountains in 1948, and in the 1950s an undercover group of New Zealand farmers were secretly training an army of bantam chickens to raise baby takahē. These surrogate parents could raise many more eggs than the remnants of the takahē population found in Fiordland.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that New Zealand conservationists, including the late, internationally-acclaimed Don Merton, successfully eradicated rats from Maria Island, a tiny island in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf, by hand spreading rat poison. Merton would later go on to save the Chatham Island black robin from extinction.

From this first fortuitous eradication, New Zealand got serious about the business of eradicating introduced predators from other islands. Successful trials across New Zealand in the 1980s had shown we could intentionally eradicate rats from larger islands.

The real game changer came with a bit of New Zealander DIY ingenuity from DOC. Fertiliser buckets filled with supermarket rat bait were strapped to the underside of helicopters flown by trained agriculture pilots: by spreading the rat poison from the air, it became possible to remove rats from even larger islands. These predator-free islands became the sanctuaries that earlier conservationists such as Richard Henry had always dreamed of, where kākāpō could live in peace.

Islands such as Tiritiri Matangi off the coast of Auckland were returned from farmed lighthouse islands to bird sanctuaries open to the public. Rats were even removed from some of the largest islands in New Zealand such as massive Campbell Island in the sub-Antarctic. Even the Australians would eventually steal New Zealand’s eradication ideas and use the same technology, pilots and staff to clear predators from their own Macquarie Island.

But the job is ongoing. The success of eradication programmes means kākāpō and takahē populations are rising so we need to create more predator-free spaces. And predators that have been cleared from islands keep threatening to return. New Zealanders like to show the world how to do things properly, and so we don’t want to stop with the job only half done. Introduced predators have now been removed from a third of New Zealand’s islands, but with a can-do attitude we could remove them from more islands, including the largest North and South Islands.

And this is where the idea of a Predator Free New Zealand was born. The movement belongs to no one, but brings us all together in its recognition that we are all responsible for protecting what makes New Zealand unique. By protecting our native birds, reptiles, insects and plants – species and ecosystems found nowhere else on the planet – we enrich all our lives and ensure New Zealand stands proudly on the international stage as the world leader in conservation and in returning our native species to the land.

Dr Russell will present a talk titled ‘Simply the Pests’ at Raising the Bar on August 29, when 20 University of Auckland academics present their work and wisdom in 10 inner-city Auckland bars on one night.

His talk is at 8pm at the Oakroom. Tickets are free but registrations are essential. They can be done here.

Associate Professor James Russell is from the University of Auckland. He has received the 2018 Distinguished Service Award for the Oceania Section of the Society for Conservation Biology.

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