THE KIWI CHALLENGE
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.