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New Zealand’s ambitious plan to save birds: Kill every rat

The pests destroyed forest habitats and feasted on the birds and their eggs

Image Credit: AP
James Russell, a scientist at the University of Auckland, has great hopes for the plan to rid New Zealand of every last rat, opossum and stoat. He says the country leads the world in clearing vermin.
Gulf News

Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand has set itself an environmental goal so ambitious it’s been compared to putting a man on the moon: ridding the entire nation of every last rat, opossum and stoat.

The idea is to give a second chance to the distinctive birds that once ruled this South Pacific nation.

When New Zealand split away from the supercontinent Gondwanaland 85 million years ago, predatory mammals hadn’t evolved. That allowed birds to thrive. Some gave up flight altogether to strut about the forest floor.

Then humans arrived, bringing predators with them. Rats stowed away on ships. Settlers introduced opossums for the fur trade and weasel-like stoats to control rabbits. The pests destroyed forest habitats and feasted on the birds and their eggs. More than 40 species of birds died out and many others remain threatened, including the iconic kiwi.

Now people want to turn back the clock. Yet the plan sounds impossible. How do you kill millions of vermin across a country that’s the size of the United Kingdom? How do you ensure a few furtive rats won’t undo all the hard work by surviving and breeding?

Scientists are talking about the mission in military terms: choking off pests on peninsulas and then advancing the front lines from there; developing new traps and genetic weapons; winning the hearts and minds of children and farmers alike.

Predator-free vision

Momentum began growing five years ago when the nation’s leading scientist, Sir Paul Callaghan, delivered an impassioned speech. When it comes to heritage, he said, England has its Stonehenge, China its Great Wall, France its Lascaux cave paintings. What makes New Zealand unique, he asked? Its birds.

Callaghan was suffering from advanced cancer and could barely stand. But for over an hour he outlined his predator-free vision, saying how growing up he was inspired by efforts to reach the moon and how saving the birds could become New Zealand’s own Apollo programme. He died a month later, but the vision grew.

Nine months ago, it became official government policy. Then-Prime Minister John Key announced a goal to wipe out the nuisance animals by 2050, calling it the “most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world.”

The goal has been embraced by many, although even its strongest supporters say it will require scientific breakthroughs. Some critics argue the plan should also have targeted feral cats or worry mice numbers might explode if rats disappear. Others say the effort is underfunded and overly ambitious.

The number of pests in New Zealand is many times larger than the human population of nearly 5 million. Opossum numbers in 2009 were estimated at 30 million. Scientists can’t hazard a guess at how many rats there are because their numbers fluctuate wildly.

So far, the government has committed only a few tens of millions of dollars toward the project, which is estimated to cost billions. Officials say more money will come from local authorities and philanthropists.

Many aren’t waiting for that. Along a popular forest trail a 10-minute drive from the bustle of central Wellington, Jonathan Moulds takes breaks from his run to clamber up banks and check rat traps.

He’s among 50 volunteer trappers who incorporate pest control into their regular workouts at the Polhill Reserve. Many became inspired three years ago after rare native birds that disappeared from the region a century ago began breeding there again.

James Russell, a scientist at the University of Auckland, has great hopes for the eradication plan.

He says New Zealand leads the world in clearing vermin. Rangers have wiped out pests from more than 100 small islands, which are providing a breeding ground for rare birds.