The Katiki Point Lighthouse, built in 1878, stands as a sentry at the very tip of Mōeraki’s headland, overseeing the habitat for one of our most iconic endangered species.

The southeast coast fishing town, famed for its jurassic beach boulders, is also home to the largest hoiho (yellow eyed penguin) breeding colony in the South Island. It’s not just hoiho, either. Tītī (muttonbirds), kororā (little penguins) and kekeno (fur seals) all like to chill out, nest, breed and eat here. In all, 12 species of seabirds and shore birds breed in this rugged spot.

Katiki Point and lighthouse. Photo: George Murahidy

And rabbits are putting them in danger.

Rosalie Goldsworthy lives on the barren and windswept peninsula as the manager of Penguin Rescue, a charity set up to take care of the hoiho with the aim of removing them from the endangered list. Her organisation operates out of the former lighthouse keeper’s residence.

Last year, Penguin Rescue had to uplift and hand rear 48 chicks after three of them were killed by ferrets. “That was a huge commitment,” says Goldsworthy. “But we couldn’t sit there and say ‘how many have to die before we do something’. ‘Cause as soon as you ask that question, you know, you’ve got to act now.”

She describes the hoiho as “an ancient species”. They are also the second rarest penguin in the world, with an estimated 1,700 breeding pairs in existence.

A hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin

She says the local boom in rabbit numbers is having the effect of attracting even worse pests – pest that are voracious predators, who also take an interest in the native wildlife. And she reckons the reason rabbit control hasn’t been high enough on the agenda is because it’s always been looked at the wrong way.

“I think because it’s always touted as an economic problem for farmers. And it’s pretty hard for Joe Bloggs to feel sorry for a farmer, you know? But it isn’t just an economic or farm problem. It’s a biodiversity problem.”

Plague of predators

Autumn is moulting time, meaning the penguins aren’t waterproof and have to stay on land.

“So they’re just sitting there waiting, they’re just easy prey.”

And Goldsworthy says rabbits are a huge part of the problem, attracting those stealthy predators.

“It’s really hard to kill a predator that isn’t hungry. And they’ll eat other things just for a bit of variety in their diet. So they won’t necessarily eat the penguin when they kill it, but they’ll kill it just for the sheer sake of killing it.”

She says rabbits are seriously adding to the numerous threats that already face the vulnerable species.

Rosalie Goldsworthy and friend. Photo: George Murahidy

“We have a plague of rabbits and they are attracting a plague of predators,” she says.

“And so the predators are not focusing on native species in this part of the country out of hunger, it’s just for variety in their diet and just to exercise their predatory skillset. And because the rabbits keep them fat, their breeding success is really high as well.”

Wander around the headland and it’s easy to spot burrows peppering the Cretaceous sandstone and mudstone landscape. The historic Te Raka-a-Hineatea Pā middens are crumbling.

The rūnanga employs rabbit shooters to keep numbers down, but it’s barely holding back the tide, and without serious coordination and intervention from the regional council, Department of Conservation and others, Goldsworthy says it’s only getting worse.

Bottom-up approach

Someone who knows all about this is Grant Norbury, a wildlife ecologist from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. He has conducted experiments and written articles for Mammal Review and the New Zealand Journal of Ecology about the link between pest prey such as rabbits and predators such as ferrets and feral cats.

He describes it as ‘bottom up’ approach.

“Think of a food web: grass going up to feed the rabbits, which are feeding the predators, so the flow of energy goes up.

“In ecological terms it is what we call a bottom-up approach, rabbits drive an abundance of these predators, and that area (Mōeraki) really is in rabbit prone country.

“The more rabbits in the system, the more impact on native species through predation. And they also wreck habitat.”

Given the link between invasive prey species and predator species that affect our native wildlife, it seems logical that rabbit pest control would be included in planning in the Government’s flagship predator control organisation.

But it’s not.

Rabbits attract ferrets, the real bad guys. Photo: Supplied

Predator Free 2050 was set up in 2016 with the aim of eradicating mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels), possums and rodents. Newsroom could not find a mention of rabbits in any Predator Free 2050 documentation.

Dan Tompkins is its science strategy manager. He seemed surprised about the link between rabbits and ferrets at first.

“So her (Goldsworthy’s) reckoning is that get rid of the rabbits, then you get rid of most of the ferrets, which seems to be the problem there. That’s good advice. And she’s right, because when there are high numbers of rabbits, it’s hard to get rid of the ferrets because they’ve got so much rabbit food.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars has been poured into the ambitious cross-agency ‘vision’, which supports and co-funds projects proposed by community groups, iwi, hapū, businesses and NGOs, including another $76m last year as part of the Budget’s Jobs for Nature package. But Tompkins says there are no plans to put rabbit control on the agenda.

“Our focus is really on possums, rats and stoats. I give lots of talks about this and the three biggest questions I get asked is: Why not mice? Why not cats? And why not rabbits? The easy answer to this is well, the three that we’ve got are going to take all our time and effort anyway to deal with. The whole point of the PF 2050 mission was to try and start to actually get some wins without actually spreading ourselves too thin with the selection of predators that we focused on. But it’s not saying that the others are not problems as well, you know. We do need to do more about them.”

So would rabbit control be something that might officially become part of the future planning of PF 2050?

rabbit in otago
Rabbits are destroying the ecosystem for some protected species.  Photo: George Murahidy

“Not in the short term. Definitely not. But I kind-of describe PF 2050 as building the plane while we’re flying it. We’re still working out what works and what doesn’t, and some things like how to go about ferret control, whether it involves rabbit control as well. Sure. That’ll come through, but it won’t be in the short term.”

In the meantime, Goldsworthy says the situation isn’t getting any better for our endangered and threatened native species, and while the different agencies and organisations drag their feet, it’s the rabbits and predators who are winning.

“Without controlling the rabbit numbers in this part of the country, Predator Free 2050 is just simply doomed to fail,” says Goldsworthy.

“I quite like rabbits really. They’re cute. They eat the grass, they keep it short and that works with penguins because they’ve only got little legs. So the rabbits themselves are not the issue. It’s the associated bad guys that follow them around.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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