f i x it? Can we
Anna Bradley- Smith examines extinction in New Zealand
Throughout history, blockades have been overcome by new ways of thinking and experimentation – try, try and try again, as the saying goes. This faith in the human ability to find solutions has led to everything from penicillin to electricity to flying machines and it continues to push society forward. So, in a regular section called Can We Fix It? Idealog and Kiwibank look at some of the world's biggest – and, in some cases, most intractable – problems and the homegrown businesses doing their bit to tackle them. This issue, Anna Bradley-Smith looks at how we're saving our native animals from extinction. We all know the name of the native bird that stood over three metres tall and weighed in at more than 200 kilograms. It is, of course, the moa.
And although it lives on in our storytelling, not one person today has seen a moa in the flesh. The same can be said about the beautiful huia and the Chatham bellbird. Since human settlement, New Zealand has lost one species of bat, at least 51 birds, three frogs, three lizards, one freshwater fish, four plant species and a number of
invertebrates. The sad tale of extinction comes from any number of causes, including predators, habitat loss, disease and hunting.
Although we have smartened to our effects on the environment and are well aware of the importance of our native species, we still stand to lose national treasures like the Maui's dolphin and kākāpō – just two of the more than 200 critically endangered species in New Zealand – if we don’t step up and help.
There are groups across the country big and small, from well-known agencies like DoC and Forest and Bird, to growing projects like the Goodnature humane predator traps and The Cacophony Project, dedicated to improving the outcomes of native species. And of course, there is the ambitious national goal set by the Government – and supported by Kiwibank – to be predator free by 2050. This year’s Government budget allocated more than $600 million towards environmentfocused projects, including $100 million for a Green Investment Fund and $181 million for DOC.
Local councils are actively working to protect areas alongside iwi and government departments and the private sector in an effort to stave off further extinction and, importantly, community groups are also mobilising around the goal.
The Island Bay Marine Education Centre in Wellington has been inspiring children and adults alike to learn about marine life since opening in 1996, working with the mantra that “if you know what’s there, you’ll care”. The centre sits in the middle of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve and was instrumental in getting the area reserve status in 2008. Over the last ten years, the regeneration and recovery of marine species in the 9km area has surprised scientists and locals alike.
Then there’s Zealandia, the world’s first fully fenced ecosanctuary – which is also in Wellington – and the BrookWaimarama sanctuary in Nelson. These are just some of the huge projects safeguarding our ecosystem.
In our big cities, efforts are being made to disentangle economic development from environmental degradation, with many businesses big and small focusing on sustainable growth.
Kiwis’ dedication to making sure our natives hang around is turning the tide on free roaming predators, because, well, how could we be Kiwis with no kiwi?
DoC deputy director general Mervyn English says although New Zealanders have always cared about the environment, over the last 10 years awareness has grown.
“I think there’s just a general understanding of how important the environment is that we live in, the whole level of consciousness is growing quite rapidly.
“There are some business groups that go out every Saturday morning and do their trapping just like they used to go to rugby.”
Advances in technology have also led to an upsurge in momentum in developing traps and innovative ways of targeting predators with “a whole new level of creative thinking”, he says.
English sees that momentum carrying on in the years ahead, especially with the goal of Predator Free 2050. Conservation served fresh Farming a native animal for the dinner plate doesn’t sound like the most ethical conservation move, but for New Zealand’s koura, it’s proving an effective way to ensure survival while increasing natural habitats and other freshwater life.
Aquaculture manager John Hollows first found out about koura, native freshwater crayfish, at university. The interest grew quickly and he ended up doing a masters on them.
“I thought they were such a cool thing to work with, so I looked at the land use effects on growth and diet – conservation things, I guess – and thought there was potential to farm them if you had a bit of time and a bit of scale.”
Eight years later, Hollows was approached by Ernslaw One, which shared the idea of koura farming in forests. Fast forward six years and Hollows and his team have multiplied 60 fire ponds in Southland and Otago forestry blocks to
2,000, and brought the species back from endangerment.
“I basically got given a blank sheet: ‘here you go, here’s a forest. Start farming.’ Forestry was going through a bit of a slump in dollars at that stage and they were looking for other options to gain revenue. Down here it’s predominantly Douglas Fir, which has a 45-year rotation time.”
He says areas that couldn’t be planted and would typically regenerate into gorse and broom were turned into open water wetland areas. With a strong conservation and environmental ethic, Hollows hasn’t used any artificial products or chemical sprays to farm the koura.
“So it’s not only the crayfish benefitting, but a whole lot of invertebrate life, and bird life. Frogs are starting to appear as well,” he says. “Some nights out in the forest you can barely hear yourself think with all the frogs going off.”
He says in the past, environmental concerns haven’t been top of the list for contracting crews, but now they are taking real care and pride in ensuring no trees or sediment get in the waterways.
Hollows got together with Federated Farmers, Fish and Game, DoC, local runanga and forestry companies to broaden the conversation about clean waterways and how to look after koura, saying: “If you can get the crayfish back you have to look after the habitat and environment, and if you look after the environment then everything else flows around it. While they are really tough on some fronts, they’re quite susceptible to sediment and chemical use and it doesn’t take much tweaking of what everyone is doing at the moment to look after the waterways.”
Long li ve the King of the Forest
At 1,500-years-old, there’s no argument Tāne Mahuta is the king of the forest.
The treasured kauri tree that stands at 51.5 metres tall with a girth of 13.77 metres in the Waipoua forest is a living legend. But his kind are in danger, with New Zealand’s native kauri tree now labelled as under threat after years of decimation from the kauri dieback disease.
The disease, caused by a funguslike pathogen called phytophthora agathidicida, was discovered in 2008 but is suspected of killing kauri since the 1950s. Although little is known about kauri dieback, it’s thought to be transmitted by soil rather than wind or birds, putting human footwear in the firing line for the disease’s rapid spread.
In order to manage the disease, MPI, DoC, regional councils in the north of the North Island and Māori have come together to form the Kauri Dieback Programme.
MPI’s manager of recovery and pest management John Sanson says the overall goal of the programme is to have the mauri and integrity of kauri forests sustained by 2024, despite the presence of kauri dieback.
“Kauri are an iconic species and we all need to take action to protect and preserve these taonga for future generations.
“They’re a key part of the indigenous forests of the upper North Island and are one of the largest and longest-living tree species in the world.”
He says a lot of on-the-ground work is being done to help prevent the spread of dieback, such as improving track and hygiene infrastructure, providing advice to land owners and community groups, and closing tracks to reduce the risk of the disease spreading.
Scientific research is also a vital part of the response to the pathogen. He says work is being done on identifying and understanding the disease and how it spreads, developing ways of managing it, undertaking baseline surveillance to determine disease presence, and using behaviour change to encourage people to follow good biosecurity hygiene practices.
Scientists are also looking into the use of phosphite as a temporary treatment to boost natural defences and at how some trees possibly have a natural immunity. Aerial surveillance is also being used to determine tree health.
“Protecting kauri from dieback needs everyone to play their part,” Sanson says.
Key to this is taking responsibility for biosecurity hygiene when visiting kauri forests, forests that house some of our country’s most treasured and oft-shied-
away from native species, weta.
Although now only found on Little Barrier Island, New Zealand’s native wetapunga (giant weta), which has outlived the dinosaurs, has made homes out of kauri for centuries.
Its more common cousins are found throughout New Zealand’s kauri populations, along with a number of other native insects, birds and plants that call the king of the forest home. And to keep it that way, it can be as simple as cleaning and disinfecting our shoes.
Predators Be Gone
Get rid of rats, stoats and possums in New Zealand and we’ll get kiwi roaming in our backyards. That is the Predator Free 2050 mission, according to programme manager Brent Beavens.
“We’ve clearly identified over the years these ones are having the biggest impact on our biodiversity and we’ve done a lot of control, we’re now at the point where we know total removal will enhance our birdlife, bats and lizards and everything else associated, and prevent extinction.”
Predator Free 2050, announced in 2016, is the ambitious project to rid New Zealand of predators in the next 32 years. Without fighting for that goal, we risk further extinctions and the overall reduction in global biodiversity.
“You don’t know what you’re losing, you can lose your national identity but it might also be the next cure for cancer sitting in one of these species,” Beavens says.
The project is built off New Zealand’s island eradication work and community conservation initiatives of the 1990s, which saw a number of predator fenced areas popping up across the country. The team behind Predator Free 2050 are tasked with coordinating efforts nationally in a cohesive way and breaking new ground as predator removal efforts move into cities and farmland.
As well as the health and social benefits people get from being in green spaces around native species, the team is expecting economic benefits by reducing the effects of possums and rats on the agricultural sector, Beavens says.
“The general thing in New Zealand is what makes us special is our culture, our native species and our landscapes, so if we want to retain that we have to be quite active in that space.”
Beavens says the benefit of setting such a clear goal has been that people have really got behind it, and there has been a growing alignment in effort and research.
“We’re so close to the technology around achieving eradication that we can push to completely remove these animals and not have the ongoing investment.”
The team is working on breakthrough technology and science, including long life lures, and new toxins that target specific animals such as rats, feral cats and stoats, and it runs a programme looking at technologies and practices they can accelerate out. ZIP (Zero Invasive Predators) is developing an eradication technique using 1080 called 1080 to zero using natural boundaries of rivers and mountain tops to defend the treated area.
Other projects independent of Predator Free 2050 but with symbiotic goals are making headwind using technology and social networking, including Squawk Squad and The Cacophony Project. The Cacophony Project, a mix of technical innovation and
You don’t know what you’re l osing, you can l ose your national i dentity but i t might also be the next cure for cancer sitting i n one of these species. Brent Beavens
conservation, was founded by inventor/ entrepreneur Grant Ryan. Initially a project to record birdsong and create an audio database to estimate population, it is now using AI, luring predators with light and sound, observing habitats with thermal cameras, identifying threats with machine learning and eliminating them. Ryan says the method could increase trapping efficiency by 80,000 times.
“Moore’s law means any solution will get twice as good or half the price every couple of years, so we’ll be predator free way before 2050. It is a way for the New Zealand tech community to solve one of the country’s biggest issues.”
The project is currently working on a new sound lure, improving the camera and finding an automated way to eliminate predators – most likely a paint ball gun with poison as the animals are all groomers. Ryan says the project is an entirely privately funded, open source non-profit, as “this is a bit too wacky for any current government programmes”.
Beavens says although everything needs some level of control and consideration, he has no qualms with the research into toxins or gene editing science like Crispr, but he doubts New Zealand would rush into any new tool. What excites him the most is developing barriers to movement, he says.
The most important thing for Predator Free 2050 is strategising and balancing investments, while making sure community empowerment remains core, Beavens says. DoC rangers are offering community training programmes to create predator elimination plans, which he says have been very popular.
“That’s where people want to work, in their own backyard.”
I SLAND TI ME
New Zealand is seen as a global leader in island pest eradication and control, and there’s plenty of opportunity to flaunt it with over 600 nearshore islands. From the almost subtropical Kermadecs to the Subantartic Campbell Island group, a number of the islands show what almost unmodified New Zealand ecosystems could look like. They host one of the world’s most diverse range of seabirds – from tropic birds to penguins – and are the last refuge for animals and plants, including tuatara, lizards and some large invertebrate like the wetapunga.
But however close to untouched, human exploration and settlement has left its legacy. Because of this, DOC manages about 220 islands larger than five hectares and hundreds of smaller islands and rock stacks. With years of trapping, poisoning and control, 100 islands are now pest free, and pests have been removed from almost all of DOC’s 50 island nature reserves, many of which are internationally acclaimed for their conservation projects focused on species such as the black robin, kākāpō and tuatara.
Those islands include a number in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, Bay of Islands, Chatham Islands and in the Subantartic area. Recently the government announced its plan to eradicate pests from the 46,000 hectare Subantarctic Auckland Island, the most ambitious island pest eradication programme so far. Conservation minister Eugenie Sage said $2 million would be dedicated to planning and understanding the scale and complexity of the problem, and would help guide funding decisions about eradicating pigs, cats and mice. DOC is working closely with Ngāi Tahu.
She said the decision to proceed would require a long-term commitment of resources and effort, with early estimates suggesting eradication could cost up to $50 million. The effort would cement the country’s reputation as a world leader in predator control, she said.
Antipodes Island, also in the Subantarctic, was recently declared predator free after a years-long effort protecting the bird and insect life from mice, and South Georgia Island experienced the same success last month. Although a British territory, New Zealand’s world-renowned island conservation expertise was called on to rid the island of rodents for the first time in 200 years, employing the skills of Kiwi field biologists and planners, and three dedicated Northlanders. DoC dog handler Miriam Ritchie and her four-legged companions Will and Ahu spent months trekking hundreds of kilometres across the rugged island searching for rodents that survived aerial poison drops. And, in the future, should genetic manipulation be deemed safe, it seems like these pests are on a hiding to nothing and will be no match for human ingenuity.
This i s a bit too wacky for any current government programmes. Grant Ryan
A rodent-hunting dog on South Georgia Island. Credit: South Georgia Heritage Trust / Oliver Prince