New Zealand has an am­bi­tious new plan to save birds — by killing all rats in the coun­try


New Zealand has set it­self an en­vi­ron­men­tal goal so am­bi­tious it’s been com­pared to putting a man on the moon: rid­ding the en­tire na­tion of every last rat, pos­sum and stoat.

The idea is to give a sec­ond chance to the dis­tinc­tive birds that once ruled this South Pa­cific na­tion. When New Zealand split away from the su­per­con­ti­nent Gond­wana­land 85 mil­lion years ago, preda­tory mam­mals hadn’t evolved. That al­lowed birds to thrive. Some gave up flight al­to­gether to strut about the for­est floor.

Then hu­mans ar­rived, bring­ing preda­tors with them. Rats stowed away on ships. Set­tlers in­tro­duced brush­tail pos­sums — an Aus­tralian species un­re­lated to North Amer­i­can opos­sums — for the fur trade and weasel-like stoats to con­trol rab­bits. The pests de­stroyed for­est habi­tats and feasted on the birds and their eggs. More than 40 species of birds died out.

Now peo­ple want to turn back the clock. Yet the plan sounds im­pos­si­ble. How do you kill mil­lions of ver­min across a coun­try that’s the size of the United King­dom?

Mo­men­tum be­gan grow­ing five years ago when the na­tion’s lead­ing sci­en­tist, Sir Paul Cal­laghan, de­liv­ered an im­pas­sioned speech. When it comes to her­itage, he said, Eng­land has its Stone­henge, China its Great Wall, France its Las­caux cave paint­ings. What makes New Zealand unique, he asked? Its birds.

Cal­laghan was suf­fer­ing from ad­vanced cancer and could barely stand. But for over an hour he out­lined his preda­tor-free vi­sion, say­ing how grow­ing up he was in­spired by ef­forts to reach the moon and how sav­ing the birds could be­come New Zealand’s own Apollo pro­gram. He died a month later, but the vi­sion grew.

Nine months ago, it be­came of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Then­prime min­is­ter John Key an­nounced a goal to wipe out the nui­sance animals by 2050, call­ing it the “most am­bi­tious con­ser­va­tion project at­tempted any­where in the world.”

The goal has been em­braced by many, although even its strong­est sup­port­ers say it will re­quire sci­en­tific break­throughs. Oth­ers say the ef­fort is un­der­funded and overly am­bi­tious.

“It’s a fan­tasy sci­ence fic­tion,” says Wayne Lin­klater, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist at the Vic­to­ria Univer­sity of Welling­ton. “And it re­ally is se­ri­ously dis­tract­ing us from some re­ally big changes and im­prove­ments we can make in bio­di­ver­sity and the en­vi­ron­ment now.”

The num­ber of pests in New Zealand is many times larger than the hu­man pop­u­la­tion of nearly five mil­lion. Pos­sum num­bers in 2009 were es­ti­mated at 30 mil­lion. Sci­en­tists can’t haz­ard a guess at how many rats there are be­cause their num­bers fluc­tu­ate wildly.

So far, the gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted only a few tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to­ward the project, which is es­ti­mated to cost bil­lions. Of­fi­cials say more money will come from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and phi­lan­thropists.

Many aren’t wait­ing for that. Along a pop­u­lar for­est trail a 10-minute drive from the bus­tle of cen­tral Welling­ton, Jonathan Moulds takes breaks from his run to check rat traps.

He’s among 50 vol­un­teer trap­pers who in­cor­po­rate pest con­trol into their reg­u­lar work­outs at the Pol­hill Re­serve. Many be­came in­spired three years ago af­ter rare na­tive birds that dis­ap­peared from the re­gion a cen­tury ago be­gan breed­ing there again.

Paul Ward, who leads the vol­un­teer group, lists ways that birds have seeped into the cul­ture, from the coun­try’s mu­sic awards that are named af­ter the bois­ter­ous tui to the nick­name for a New Zealan­der: kiwi.

“It’s about look­ing af­ter our iden­tity as much as it is look­ing af­ter the birds,” he says.

James Rus­sell, a sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, has great hopes for the erad­i­ca­tion plan. And he knows ex­actly how hard it can be to catch a sin­gle rat. Dur­ing his doc­toral re­search 15 years ago, Rus­sell re­leased mon­i­tored rats on small is­lands to see if they would take over. The first rat he re­leased, named Razza, evaded re­cap­ture for 18 weeks. It even swam to an­other is­land.

But Rus­sell, heart­ened by the progress since then, says New Zealand leads the world in clear­ing ver­min. Rangers have wiped out pests from more than 100 small is­lands, which are pro­vid­ing a breed­ing ground for rare birds.

Rus­sell is help­ing lead an ef­fort to find sci­en­tific break­throughs, such as chang­ing pest genes to make them die out.

Con­ser­va­tion Min­is­ter Mag­gie Barry looks to the Zealan­dia sanc­tu­ary in Welling­ton, where rau­cous kaka par­rots and fid­gety sad­dle­backs are among the rare birds pro­tected from preda­tors by a spe­cially de­signed fence that stretches for kilo­me­tres. She says she hopes one day the whole coun­try will look, and sound, as idyl­lic.

“The mo­men­tum has been fan­tas­tic,” Barry says.

A tui perches on a tree trunk at a water sta­tion at Zealan­dia in Welling­ton, New Zealand. In­va­sive mam­mals are threat­en­ing the coun­try’s bird pop­u­la­tion.


Wil­low­bank Wildlife Re­serve na­tive species keeper Bethany Brett holds Mo­hua, a fe­male great spot­ted kiwi in her en­clo­sure in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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