New Zealand’s island of Rakiura is completely predator-free – is that a good idea?
Let’s start with the kakapo, a flightless parrot. When this New Zealand bird species was on the brink of extinction in the early 1980s, a drastic decision was made. The entire population has been moved from Rakiura Island, in the far south of New Zealand, to several small neighboring islands. Only then would they be safe from predators. And yes, they are still there, 252 to be exact: green-yellow birds that wake up at night and roam the woods, innocently staring at the world with their big eyes.
The kakapo’s problem is the problem of many birds, reptiles and insects in New Zealand: they are no match for the mammals that have come to the islands with humans over the past few centuries. For tens of millions of years, they evolved with no distant terrestrial predator in sight. It left native wildlife defenseless against the common cats, rats and brushtails (a marsupial) that now populate the land in large numbers.
But recently, there is hope for the kakapo. Ecologists and scientists announced this summer a project that is difficult to predict: they want to make all of Rakiura, also known as Stewart Island, “predator-free”. And that for an island the same size as the province of Zeeland, where 400 people live and 30,000 tourists come every year.
It’s just the beginning. New Zealand aims to be completely predator-free by 2050: all common rats, stoats and brushtails must be extinct. ‘We are working on an Aotearoa (Maori name for New Zealand, ed.) where our native species to be saved from extinction and live with us in prosperity,” reports a government website. The hope is that Rakiura can be a role model for what needs to happen across the country.
‘It`s not a new idea to exterminate predators on an entire island,” says Campbell Leckie, director of the Predator Free Rakiura project, a collaboration between governments, Maori officials and local (tourist) businesses, among others. “New Zealand has a long history in this area. But the scale on which we will try it now is unprecedented.
Yes, this mission can succeed, thinks Leckie. There are six animal species on Rakiura: three species of rats, wildcats, common brushtails, and hedgehogs. Hundreds of thousands of animals in total. “It won’t be easy, it will definitely be a challenge, but it can be done. A lot has changed in the last five years: we now have the vision and the techniques to make it work.’
He talks about traps that are equipped with a wireless connection so that they can signal if there is an animal in them. “In the past, someone had to go through all these traps, now you know exactly where to go.” There are also developments with attractants that continue to work for a very long time. And then there are cameras equipped with artificial intelligence, so they can scan large areas for unwanted animal species. If a new rat or brushtail opossum appears after extermination, quick action can be taken using that.
Putting all this into practice takes money, a lot of money. Leckie thinks of an amount of 50 to 60 million euros. For the early years, where a detailed action plan is being developed, funding was arranged this summer. Predator Free Rakiura and the national research institute Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research are jointly devoting 1.7 million euros.
This project is also very interesting for scientists, explains Chris Jones, team leader of wildlife management and ecology for nature conservation at the research institute. “For each pest, we need to know how many there are, where they live and the best way to get rid of them. Hedgehogs, for example, have never been completely eradicated. And in what order should we proceed? You don’t want to catch rats, for example, and then cats will go after birds even more actively. There are also statistical questions: how do you know the last rat or hedgehog is gone?
These are some of the research questions he’s been thinking about, but he doesn’t have a list ready yet, Jones points out. “Historically, scientists came up with great ideas and then they tested them,” he says. “We don’t want to be so arrogant now. Together with the local community, including Maori, we want to determine what knowledge is needed. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about this project.
Yes, says Luis Valente, evolutionary biologist and researcher at Naturalis, making Rakiura predator-free is a good idea. “It’s the only way to save biodiversity on this island,” he says. According to him, the extermination of introduced animals is the most effective means of protecting native nature: on the one american study For example, a 2016 study, which listed 251 extermination operations, showed that 236 native animal species had benefited. Their number or distribution has increased.
New Zealand’s nature is absolutely worth the effort, says Valente. “It’s precisely because New Zealand has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long that animal species have evolved here that you won’t find anywhere else. Bridge lizards, for example, a large species of reptile very different from all of its relatives. Many of these unique animal species have already disappeared: thirty of the seventy species of land birds have already disappeared. If you do nothing, it will continue.
Predator Free Rakiura’s Campbell Leckie is tasked with avoiding this scenario. In twenty years, he hopes, the skies of Rakiura will once again be filled with birds now threatened with extinction. The kiwi, another small, flightless bird, then roams people’s gardens at night, much more often than it does today. “And,” he says, “there will also be many more tourists and locals who can make a living from tourism.”
But the biggest change will be another one, he says. “If this succeeds, we will show how far you can go to protect nature. It could be a turning point for what people think is possible.
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