Predator-Free NZ: Our ‘Space Programme’?

By Elf Eldridge 22/03/2013

Last night I attended the “Pesty Science” lecture hosted by Victoria University looking at the issues surrounding the idea of a Predator-Free New Zealand. The lecture was presented by Landcare Research’s Dr Andrea Byrom, and really dug into the nitty-gritty questions we have to ask if we (as a nation) seriously want to consider a predator-free NZ as a potential future. To her credit, Dr. Byrom began (in typical scientific fashion) by stating that although she has a personal interest in the problem she was NOT advocating a stance either for or against “Predator-Free NZ”. She discussed the need for people to appreciate the difference between ‘pest-contol’ and ‘pest-eradication’ – and noted New Zealand’s decent track record when it comes to pest eradication on small islands.

Brushtail Possum – Image by Bryce McQuillan via Wikimedia Commons

I found the most interesting parts of her talk however, was around the trade-offs we will have to make if we expect to make this idea a reality. Specifically she mentioned the use of aircraft bait dropping, deciding WHICH species warrant inclusion in the eradication scheme (usually the discussion centres on possums, rats and mice, stoats and their ilk and feral cats – despite what is being bandied around in the media currently) and the need for survey systems to detect ‘downstream effects’. For clarification this means looking at the concentration of baits in the bodies of other non-target specifies to appreciate the flow on effect through the food chain. She finished by mentioning the large social barriers that would have to be overcome, to say nothing of the large financial cost involved*.

Here I will admit that conservation biology is NOT my field, so I can’t comment on the validity of the science behind such an idea. Scibloggers far better equipped to discuss the intricacies than I have been discussing this for some time now. However there are a few inescapable facts we should acknowledge, the first being cost. Estimates of the cost vary widely but for a country with a GDP of US$166.9 Billion it’s likely minimum is 1.7-1.8% of GDP*. That’s significantly more than NZ’s total 2010 R&D spending (both government and private) which was quoted at 1.3% of 2010 GDP. Can we as a country justify spending this much on any one project? And lets not forget that this money can’t just ‘appear’ – it will have to removed from other projects. Can we say with certainty that this money isn’t better spent on roads, or education,  or medical treatment or even simply reducing the amount of NZ children that still live below the poverty line?

Image by Andrew Turner via Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, sure this garners a huge amount of public support now – when it’s simply an idea, but what happens when this begins to conflict with our ability to access our environment? Anyone that has been to any of our island reserves will have experiences the extensive searching you have to go through. What happens when this comes to the mainland? It will mean decades of checkpoints and searches throughout the country, possibly even large tracks of NZ being off-limits. How will the public and government feel then?

And finally, to me it is still not clear that even after all this effort that it is possible at all. A project like this must necessarily survive changes in government and the global environment – and that’s certainly not trivial. Furthermore, even if we do eliminate the list of species above, what effect will this have on our indigenous species? From research done by sanctuaries such as Zealandia, we might expect indigenous fauna populations to bounce back – but intrinsically this will be at different rates. What happens when weka (for example) assume parts of the ecological niche left vacant by the absence of these predators? Do we then wipe them out too? And even if this is successful beyond our wildest dreams, it won’t bring back the Huia or the Moa – New Zealand can never return to pre-settlement conditions.

Apollo 11 breaks the sound barrier after launch on 16 July 1969 on it’s way to mankind’s historic moon landing – image from NASA via Wikimedia Commons

So does this mean we should bin the idea? Absolutely and unequivocally: NO.

Committing to a decades long programme of research will force us to confront and understand what it is that we, as Kiwi’s, value and what makes our nation ‘home’. It will serve as a reminder that we are a preparing for a future better than what we enjoy today. It will require innovations in science, technologies, public consultancy and co-ordination that will spill into other areas including business, tourism and medicine.  It will generate knowledge that is valuable, not only to ourselves, but to every nation on earth. And all of this will happen REGARDLESS of whether it succeeds or not. If this rhetoric sounds familiar – it should:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”– John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

And so I close by posing the question, not “Is Predator-Free NZ our version of a Space Programme?”, but:

Is predator-free NZ the BEST big challenge New Zealand can aspire to?”


*the exact cost is not known so I will not repeat Dr. Byron’s estimate here – however it looks to be on the order of billions of dollars.

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