Killing for conservation

By Alfie Shaw

New Zealand’s conservation plan that is focused on killing.

The goal of most conservation efforts is to prevent certain animal groups from dying out.

However, in 2016, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister John Key announced that the goal for New Zealand was to become predator free by 2050. The initiative aims to eradicate the entire population of invasive predators.

On the surface, this might seem like an odd approach. However, the goal is to protect the country’s native birds, including the national bird the kiwi and the kakapo. Since these flightless birds evolved in a predator free environment, they haven’t adapted to protect themselves. Their populations have been critically reduced, with the kakapo now declared critically endangered.

Before other predators arrived with humans, New Zealand only had one mammal predator, the New Zealand lesser short-tailed bat. However, the country is now home to three species that are devastating the local bird population; rats, stoats and possums. Stoats and possums were introduced to the country on purpose, possums to establish a fur trade in 1837 and stoats in 1879 to combat rabbit destruction of sheep pastures. Unfortunately, they’ve had a severe negative impact on the native avian population, the call to arms is a drastic solution to rid the islands of these damaging pests.

Stoats are impressive swimmers, able to swim up to one and half kilometres before they need a break. © Gavin Bickerton-Jones | Getty
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Predator Free 2050’s interium goal for 2025 includes the complete removal of all introduced predators from offshore island reserves and developing a scientific breakthrough to remove one of the target species completely. The Department for Conservation is basing this goal on the success they’ve had removing pests from smaller islands in New Zealand. In the 1960s, Maria Island become the first island in the world to be rat free. They have seen progress every decade since, breaking their own record in 2001 for the large island to be preadtor free when they cleared Campbell Island of rats.

Campbell island
The size of Campbell Island is 43.51 square miles. © Fotosearch | Getty

The initiative has broad public support. In a survey carried out by New Zealand’s Department for Conservation, 84 per cent of the 8000 people surveyed agreed that pest species posed a significant conservation risk. The difficulty comes from the techniques used to implement this larger goal. Predator Free 2050 utilises an array of strategies to combat the predators. These range from placing of single use traps by volunteers to drops of 1080 poison on larger areas. The public opinion on these techniques isn’t quite as wholehearted, with the use of 1080 poison being protested by some groups.

1080 poison (Sodium fluoroacetate) is banned in most countries, due to the fact it is a high-risk to land mammals, including cats and dogs. It is still used in only six countries; these are Australia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and New Zealand. The continued use of the poison is campaigned against by animals rights groups, although the Department for Conservation recently reaffirmed their support of the use of 1080. They stated it is necessary to deal with invasive predators in hard to access regions.

As hinted at by their interim goals, a large part of Predator Free involves investment in, and reliance on, future technologies. These potential aids aren’t universally loved, the idea of deploying Species Specific Toxins appealed to only 52 per cent of the population and only 32 per cent were happy with using gene drives. Gene drives involve manipulating the animals genes, speeding up and controlling changes within animal populations that would normally take generations. Their use is also hotly discussed in the scientific community, with some scientists saying their deployment would set a dangerous precedent and would almost certainly carry unforeseen consequences.

Predator Free 2050 is not without it’s critics. In an article published in the journal Conservation Letters, Wayne Linklater and Jamie Steer said, “The policy is flawed and risks diverting effort and resources from higher environmental priorities and better alternatives.” These other priorities include the reduction of habitat loss and prevention of poisoning habitats, which has caused significant damage to aquatic habitats. They also say that the ecosystems that invasive predators are now a part of are not simple predator/prey structures, but a complicated web of lots of different species. Removing one part of this system, while it might save endangered birds, could have unforeseen consequences in other parts of the chain.

Whilst Predator Free 2050 is not free from criticism, the scale and ambition of the project is unlike any other conservation project. Wether it can sustain public support as it gets closer to it’s 2050 remains to be seen.

Featured image © Anthoptic | Getty