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For Kiwis’ Sake New Zealand Declares War on Rats

The country unveils an ambitious plan to protect its national bird

Rats' days are numbered in New Zealand. (Mani Binelli /Flickr Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Nothing is more symbolic of New Zealand than the kiwi, a flightless bird that’s so synonymous with the island nation that it’s been a nickname for New Zealanders for a century. But today, there are only about 68,000 of the iconic birds left in the wild, thanks in part to predators that kill about 20 a week. But New Zealanders aren’t going to let the birds go without a fight: As Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for The Guardian, New Zealand just unveiled an ambitious plan to kill all of its rats, possums and other introduced predators.

The plan, “Predator Free New Zealand by 2050,” aims to remove threats to New Zealand’s native wildlife presented by predator pests that were introduced to the island by human activity. The pests, which include rats, possums, and mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels) are blamed for causing a precipitous decline in native New Zealand bird species, killing 25 million birds a year and competing with other native wildlife and harming the New Zealand economy by carrying disease, harming the landscape and infesting human environments.

In response, reports Roy, New Zealand’s government will devote national resources to completely wiping out non-native versions of all three groups. As Isaac Davison writes for The New Zealand Herald, the government will spend $28 million on the project, working with private investors to make pest eradication a priority. Sir Rob Fenwick, who will lead the project, tells Davison that it is a “landscape-style assault on predators that we haven’t seen before.”

The assault itself will have multiple fronts. As Stacey Kirk writes for Stuff.co.nz, officials hope that technology like GPS-assisted traps can help completely remove the predator. New Zealand also offers field courses to help people eradicate rats and other pests in their areas and, as Roy reports, may resort to poisoning and encouraging possum hunting to reach its goal.

The government currently uses the aerial poison 1080 to control some pests and maintains that it is viable due to its relatively low cost and the fact that it does not bio-accumulate. Though some studies have found that the poison is effective in pest management, public opinion is split on the use of 1080, as public comments on a 2007 report reveal.

Any plan to eradicate huge swaths of animals is sure to prove contentious, but will the program actually work? Officials think so, and they estimate that eradicating the introduced predators will save the New Zealand economic sector nearly two percent of the country’s gross domestic product each year. That’s a lot of money—and a lot of rats.

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