New Zealand goes to war against invasive pests

July 27, 2016

The New Zealand government is going where no government has gone before by taking steps to eliminate each and every rat, stoat and possum nation-wide in order to create a predator-free country by 2050.

According to one article, the government believes introduced species kill 25 million native New Zealand birds a year, including the iconic flightless Kiwi, which die at a rate of 20 per week, and now, fewer than 70,000 remain. 

The government estimates the cost of introduced species to the New Zealand economy and primary sector to be $3.3 billion New Zealand dollars, or $2.3 billion USD.

“This is the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world, but we believe if we all work together as a country we can achieve it,” prime minister, John Key said in the article.

Existing pest control methods in New Zealand include the controversial and widespread use of 1080 aerial poison drops, trapping and ground baiting, and possum hunting by ground hunters (possum fur has become a vibrant industry in New Zealand, and is used for winter clothing). These methods, however, have proved successful in eradicating rats from several of the country’s smaller islands.

Emeritus Professor of Conservation Mick Clout from the University of Auckland said he was “excited” by the “ambitious plan” which if achieved would be a “remarkable world first.”

To help accomplish this task, the government said it would initially contribute $28 million New Zealand dollars ($20 million USD) over four years toward setting up a company to run the program, and would consider partially matching money contributed by local councils and businesses.

“Even the intention of making New Zealand predator free is hugely significant and now it has money and the government behind it, I believe it is possible, I am actually very excited,” Clout said in the article.

“The biggest challenge will be the rats and mice in urban areas. For this project to work it will need the urban communities to get on board. Possum extermination will be the easiest because they only breed once a year and there are already effective control methods in place,” he added.

Ecologist James Russell, from the University of Auckland, has written about the idea before. "I really do think it's possible," he said in another article. "It will require people working in every nook and corner of the country." He also added that getting rid of the pests would make a huge difference to the health of native plants and wildlife.

The article explains that New Zealand is unusual in that its native animals are mainly birds, some of which became flightless over time. When humans arrived and brought rats, the rodents had few predators.

Jacqueline Beggs, another ecologist from the university, said eliminating pests from small, uninhabited islands was one thing, but getting everybody from farmers to anti-government types to agree on the idea would prove much more difficult, if not impossible.

"It's definitely a fantastic challenge," she said. "It will really stretch the boundaries."

Beggs said she also worries the goal could distract from other important environmental issues and could even create new problems, such as an explosion in the population of mice.

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