28 Jul 2016

New Zealand free of Invasive Predators by 2050?

Predator Free New Zealand (Logo by Tim James)
Predator Free New Zealand (Logo by Tim James)
By Mike Britton

Rats, mustelids and possums have devastated the bird life of New Zealand since their introduction.  They kill an estimated 25 million native birds every year, and prey on other native species such as lizards.  This is because birds in New Zealand evolved without mammalian predators and are vulnerable to attacks on their eggs, nests and even adults from these alien species.  The New Zealand Government has estimated the cost to the economy and agriculture estimated at around NZ$13.3 billion. 

Currently between NZ$60 to 80 million is spent every year trying to control invasive predators, particularly possums.  Most of the control efforts have been using aerial drops of poisons with ground poisoning and trapping the other main control methods.   Real progress has been made in the development of technologies and the operations to eradicate predators on offshore islands have started to win the war to save the birds.  There have also been sanctuaries established on the mainland, some protected by predator fences, but a growing number of areas protected by intensive predator control, much of it by volunteers.  For example, New Zealand BirdLife Partner Forest & Bird now maintains a sanctuary of over 3000 hectares, at its Ark in the Park on the outskirts of Auckland, solely through volunteer effort.

These successes have created a gleam in the eye of conservationists that it is possible to remove these killers over large parts of New Zealand – and – the ultimate target - eradicating them completely.  A meeting of scientists hosted by Forest & Bird in 2012 agreed eradicating the main predators of New Zealand’s birds was feasible and although a hugely ambitious idea, its time was coming.

Since then the ideas have been developed with special attention given to new technologies, some of which are showing real promise.  And this week, in what is probably the biggest conservation project ever undertaken, the New Zealand Government has thrown its weight and money behind making New Zealand predator free and saving the birds.  In a major announcement this week, New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, set the target of 2050 to see New Zealand free of its deadliest invasive predators.

The plan is to launch an integrated, large-scale effort to eradicate predators. It will be achieved by supporting new and existing conservation projects, primary sector pest control and community groups on a globally unprecedented level.

While the eventual cost maybe several billions, the economics add up.  A new public/private company with initial funding of $28 million will be formed to work with communities, attract co-investors, and accelerate the scale of pest control.  It will invest in scientific research to eradicate predators across New Zealand.

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Forest & Bird has hailed the formal 2050 target, as a "game-changer".  "A country free of predators would allow forests, towns and cities to fill with native bird life such as kiwi, kākāriki (parakeets), pīwakawaka (fantails), tīeke (saddleback), kōkako, and kākā. Other species like tuatara, hihi (stichbirds), toutouwai (robins), insects, and native snails would repopulate forests and other wild places," says Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell.

"The objective of a predator free country is one that many environmental groups, large and small, have been tirelessly working towards for a long time.

"Reversing centuries of misguided predator releases and their ongoing devastating effect on our native species and habitats will take commitment, investment, and collaboration, but is entirely achievable by 2050, with the right resources, experts, and framework in place," says Mr Hackwell.

“A predator free country will also be of huge value to public health and our agriculture industries which currently spend many millions every year combating waste, contamination, and disease due to pests like rats and possums.”

Four goals for 2025 have been set for the project:

• An additional 1 million hectares of land where pests have been supressed or removed through Predator Free New Zealand partnerships

• Development of a scientific breakthrough capable of removing at least one small mammalian predator from New Zealand entirely

• Demonstrate areas of more than 20,000 hectares can be predator free without the use of fences

• Complete removal of all introduced predators from offshore island nature reserves