New Zealand’s Ambitious Plans to Save Wild Birds
New Zealand is a nation which is renowned for its birds and the distinctive native species were once the undisputed kings of the nation. The distinctive birds remained free of predators for millions of years. This meant that many species evolved to be flightless as they were safe living on the ground. but then humans arrived and everything changed.
Rats, Opossums and Stoats
When people sailed to New Zealand and started to inhabit the islands, they brought with them the rats which had stowed away on the ships. The settlers then introduced opossums for their fur and stoats to control rabbits. These predatory animals destroyed forest habitats and feasted on the native birds, not to mention their eggs. These days, more than 40 species of birds are threatened including the legendary kiwi.
The motivation to tackle this issue was kick started by leading scientist Sir Paul Callaghan when he delivered a passionate speech whilst suffering from cancer. He spoke emotionally about the country’s natural heritage and his vision for saving the birds. Sadly, he died just one month later.
Recently, the New Zealand government announced that it was instituting an official policy to wipe
out all of the nuisance vermin in the country. Their plan is to exterminate every single rat, stoat and possum. Scientists are discussing a military type campaign to kill-off pests inhabiting peninsulas of land and then to advance the line of attack progressively from these points. They are developing new traps and genetic weapons and have gained the support of the public. It is thought to be the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere on the planet.
However, there are concerns that the mice population could explode in the absence of the rats and some critics feel that the project is too ambitious as there are millions and millions of pests to tackle. It is estimated that there are 30 million possums alone. Nobody knows how many rats there may be as populations fluctuate. It could cost billions to complete the project but nothing like that level of funding has been provided thus far. The eradication effort is being supported by many volunteers who trap rats for free!
The rat traps are already paying dividends as native birds are moving back into territories that they have not occupied for a century and more. In addition, rangers have already wiped out rats from 100 small islands which are now valuable breeding grounds for rare species of bird. But the North and South islands are an altogether bigger challenge.
The Appliance of Science
Scientific breakthroughs are helping the effort. It is now possible to change pests’ genes to make them die out. New lures which use the scent of sex rather than food seem to be working. Traps have developed which utilise pressurised carbon dioxide to reset themselves and here, one trap can kill 24 rats in a six-month period whilst saving on the cost of personnel. The possibility of using drones to position the traps is also being researched. Poisons are being used in a multi-faceted approach.
Could New Zealand achieve the seemingly impossible and completely rid the country of vermin?