Planet Earth

New Zealand Declares War on Rats, Weasels and Possums

D-briefBy Nathaniel ScharpingJul 26, 2016 12:07 AM


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New Zealand today announced an ambitious plan to rid the island nation of all invasive predators by 2050. The targeted creatures include rats, weasels, possums and ferrets, all introduced to the island by native settlers and Europeans. If successful, the proposal would eradicate every member of those species on the island in an attempt to restore a more natural ecosystem. It is estimated that some 25 million native birds are killed each year by invasive species, including New Zealand's iconic, endangered kiwi. All told, Prime Minister John Key says invasive species are costing the island $3.3 billion annually. 

Ambitious Partnership

To achieve their goal, officials in New Zealand have dedicated an initial investment of $20 million toward creating Predator Free New Zealand, a corporation aimed at building partnerships with the private sector to eradicate pests. The government has pledged to provide one dollar of support for every two dollars raised by private corporations and local governments.

A pair of kiwis. (Credit: Sabine Bernert/New Zealand Government) “This is the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world, but we believe if we all work together as a country we can achieve it," Key said in a statement. The project bears similarities to pest-control programs in Alberta, Canada, which have been largely successful in eliminating invasive rats through a combination of border controls, truck and train searches and a hotline that enables residents to call in rat sightings. The province has seven employees dedicated almost solely to rat control. The only mammals today that are native to New Zealand are bats and marine mammals — all of the terrestrial mammals there were brought in by settlers. Carnivorous species such as rats and ferrets prey on the natives and compete with them for resources. Invasive species are also blamed for the spread of bovine tuberculosis on the island.

New Methods Needed

Current methods of extermination include aerial drops of the controversial poison 1080, traps and hunting, which has led to the rise of possum fur as a luxury item. While these methods will likely play a role in the expanded efforts to control invasive populations, the government acknowledges that new technologies are needed. The effort builds on previous attempts to rid New Zealand of invasive predators, such as Project Taranaki Mounga, which is an attempt to clear Egmont National Park of predators. Similar projects have begun in isolated areas in New Zealand over the past decade or so, and most are still ongoing. This proposal would be the first to establish a nation-wide effort to completely eradicate all invasive mammals. According to a 2015 study, a pest-control program encompassing the entire country would cost around $6 billion over the course of 50 years. That's less than half of what it would cost to fund pest-management programs over the same time period, however. New Zealand currently spends about $40 million every year on invasive species management. While a goal of 2050 has been set, that may be a conservative estimate says advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell, speaking to the Guardian. He thinks that the island could be pest free as early as 2040. The plan is set to kick off in 2017, with the goal of developing the technology to eradicate at least one species of mammal by 2025.

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