It was the early morning of 17 January, 1770, and Joseph Banks was having trouble sleeping in. From his bunk aboard James Cook’s Endeavour, then swinging gently at anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound, the expedition’s naturalist was:
“...awak’d by the singing of the birds ashore ... the numbers of them were certainly very great ... their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.”
Banks was listening to the melody of a largely intact mainland forest – something no New Zealander has heard for more than two hundred years. Even Banks’ choir was by then missing a few critical sections – Maori, and their dogs and rats, had by then exterminated at least 35 species – native swans and geese, pelicans, adzebills – and of course the moa and its mighty foe, Harpagornis, the biggest eagle that ever lived.
Cook was already busy releasing pigs and goats, but far worse was to come: in his wake came British and European settlers, and they brought ruin with them: cats, mice, ferrets, stoats, weasels, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, possums, deer, chamois, thar and disastrously, more rats – and these ones could climb trees.
In just 750 years, half of New Zealand’s vertebrate fauna disappeared. At least 51 bird species, three frogs, three lizards, a freshwater fish, four plant species, and an unguessable host of invertebrates are gone forever. No one will ever see a living moa, a piopio or a laughing owl. The songs of the huia and the South Island kokako have long stopped echoing. All are now just dusty bones and skins, the relics of oblivion. New Zealand’s list of extinct species is one of the longest in the world – only Hawaii has suffered greater losses – and the file is far from closed. There is no corner of the country, no matter how remote, steep, or frigid, that has not been overrun by the pests of the pioneers.
If only this were simply a cautionary tale of old. Sadly, New Zealanders are still bystanders to extinction: it’s going on all around us, right now, every hour, every minute. By current reckoning, 2788 native species are threatened with nihility – a third of all those we know of. The Department of Conservation, stripped in 2011 of $54 million over the following four years, and a further $9.3 million a year* from natural heritage management, can now minister to fewer than 200 of them. So we’re reduced to triage: trying to pick likely survivors, and turning our backs on the basket cases.
Conservation in New Zealand means killing things: trapping and poisoning pestilence so that native species might just get enough breathing space to breed. But the conservation estate is vast – at eight million hectares, nearly 30 per cent of the country – and only a million hectares receive any kind of intervention. Elsewhere, populations are left to die. Kiwi are disappearing from such neglected corners at the rate of six per cent a year.
As it stands, then, pest control is too little, and for many will come too late, if at all. More species will go extinct, which is why the notion of a predator-free New Zealand, conceived by the late Sir Paul Callaghan and upheld by a think tank of conservationists including Rob Fenwick, Gareth Morgan, and Charles Daugherty, is one we simply must have, and hold close.
But before we embark, we need to be crystal clear about what we mean, and honest about what we want. In much of the literature to date, “pest” and “predator” have been freely interchangeable, but they mean two very different things, and the distinction is a deal-breaker. For the purposes of publicity, “predator” appears to mean rats, possums and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels).
This is unquestionably the unholy trinity of pest control. Collectively, they do the bulk of harm to native birds, but there is a whole host of other imports out there doing proven and significant harm to native species – cats, hedgehogs, wasps, wallabies, wild pigs, goats, deer, thar, chamois, and while we’re committing blasphemy, we may as well utter the unutterable: trout and salmon.
But few are prepared to publicly brand these animals as “pests”, despite reams of peer-reviewed literature which clearly shows that, ecologically, that’s very much what they are. That’s because one person’s pest is another’s recreational resource, stuffed trophy or even their prime income. There is simply no Government, trust or NGO, real or imagined, that will risk taking on the hunting and fishing lobby, nor ordinary household cat lovers. That’s why the predator-free NZ web site is silent about these creatures (although Gareth Morgan has publicly campaigned for cat control – and was predictably vilified): to advocate for their removal would be to lose the PR battle before it begins.
The elephant of conflicted interests has ever stalked the conservation boardroom, and practitioners have tiptoed round it. But is it ethically acceptable to engage the New Zealand public with these game-changing aces firmly concealed up your sleeve? A pest-free campaign will depend critically upon public support, moral and financial. But many people will assume they’re sponsoring the final, enduring salvation of endemic biodiversity when in fact, mustelids, stoats and possums are really just the top priority.
Even if we put aside the damage caused by browsing animals and sport fish, our flora and fauna face many further threats. Nobody can accurately predict the impact of climate change on native ecosystems, but projections are frightening: early work by botanists Stephan Halloy and Alan Mark found that New Zealand’s alpine habitat – reckoned in 2003 at 30,000 square kilometres, or 11 per cent of our land area – could shrink to just 6700 square kilometres, or 2.4 per cent – by 2100.
That loss of habitat, combined with displacement by exotic weeds exploiting the new opportunity, could see the extinction of between 200 and 300 native alpine plant species. And that was based on conservative warming estimates.
Ocean acidifcation, kauri dieback, the truly neutron time-bomb of invasive pest plants, loss of genetic diversity, illegal introductions and translocations of game animals and fish – all these things will go on to sapping any recovery, regardless of how many rats are killed.
And then there’s habitat loss. Native forest continues to fall to the axe on private land, taking crucial local populations with it. Wetlands, incomprehensibly, are still being drained, despite the fact that we’ve already lost 90 per cent of the original extent. Rivers and stream flows are forever appropriated for irrigation, and filthy, nutrient-sodden effluent allowed to run back into them.
Because the Government shows no inclination to act (thereby following a long, shameful tradition) it’s left to the public and enlightened businesses to bankroll any new vision for our Nature. So yes; we manifestly need initiatives like predator-free New Zealand. It must happen.
But if the public is stumping up the cash, they deserve more than a PR strategy. If we’re selling them a future of some ringing, abundant utopia – a reprise of Banks’ shoreline cacophony – we do them, and biodiversity, no favours by sanitising the action plan. They need to know that it will demand much more than simply extirpating a narrow suite of predators.
We should warn them that it will get ugly, that some species will be lost regardless, and that they will need to make some tough choices. Cats or wildlife? Hunting or healthy forests? Sport fishing, or hope for the three-quarters of our native fish facing extinction?
Intact, diverse ecosystems? Or a compromised, dysfunctional theme park?
* There was a last-minute $20m top-up in the 2013 Budget to try to stem a haemorrhage of jobs in the Department.