Thousands of years ago—when humans weren’t a threat to the Earth and invasive species couldn’t stow away on ships, enter foreign lands, and destroy many of the things that made those lands unique and beautiful—all sorts of distinct native birds flourished on the islands that now constitute New Zealand.
Today, more than 40 of those unique species are extinct, thanks to humans. We hunted them, destroyed their habitats, and, maybe most importantly, introduced rats and opossums and stoats—a type of weasel—which slaughtered the birds, many of which, the Associated Press says, “gave up flight altogether to strut about the forest floor.” The 40-odd surviving native bird species struggle on.
Now, the government and activists have come up with a solution: kill all the rats and opossums and stoats, every last one of them, to protect what’s left and, possibly, bring back some that are thought to be lost. (There are still sightings, for example, of the South Island kokako, which may or may not be extinct.) “It’s about looking after our identity as much as it is looking after the birds,” Paul Ward, the head of a volunteer pest control group, told the AP, in an article that’s very much worth your time.
The government has earmarked tens of millions of dollars for the project, though it’s thought the final cost will be in the billions. And that’s not to mention the sheer enormity of the challenge: How does one eradicate an estimated 30 million opossums and an untold number of rats and stoats?
No one knows, but a number of methods are being employed and considered, from traps to poisons to changing the pests’ genetic makeup. Despite the considerable effort, there are (understandably) skeptics, who argue primarily that the task is impossible. “It’s a fantasy science fiction,” Wayne Linklater, a wildlife biologist at the Victoria University of Wellington, told the AP.
And no, they haven't forgotten about cats...
Cat war breaks out in New Zealand
In this island nation said to harbor more cat owners per capita than any other country, a furor has broken out over a crusade to eradicate man’s second-best friend. The charge is being led by Gareth Morgan, a nationally renowned economist-turned-environmental-activist, who has dubbed cats “natural born killers” that are menacing the native bird population and bringing some to the verge of extinction.
In late January, Morgan launched the Web site Cats to Go, outlining a plan that would eventually lead to a cat-free country. Some scientists said he was, in fact, understating the threat posed by little Fluffy, while others argued that the ecosystem was far more complex than he was allowing for.
The mere suggestion of a feline-free nation is raising the dander of cat lovers of every stripe, with everyone from the prime minister to animal-welfare activists calling Morgan a kitty hater of the worst sort.
Writing on the opposition group Cats to Stay’s Facebook page, which has more than 6,000 “likes,” Jeremy Chang said of Morgan: “making the capital pest-free? then he should stay away from Wellington.”
Gareth Morgan, a nationally renowned economist-turned-environmental-activist, has dubbed cats “natural born killers.” (Marty Melville/GETTY IMAGES)
This is a nation with an uneasy relationshi with pests. Because of its geographic isolation, the country has become home to an exotic bird life that evolved in the absence of any native mammals, save three species of bats. Many birds, including the kiwi — the country’s national symbol — became flightless.
Rats, opossums, short-tailed weasels — these have long been maligned here as wholly unwelcome interlopers wreaking havoc on the native bird life and landscape made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films. The Conservation Department spent two years and more than $500,000 eradicating three short-tailed weasels on nearby Kapiti Island, for example.
But cats? New Zealanders love their felines, with one study estimating that they have the highest rate of cat ownership in the world.
“We have got a concerted effort on opossums, rats, mice, mustelids, but the one that stands out is cats. Everybody is too bloody PC and scared to take on cats. So I thought, I can handle that,” said Morgan, one of this city’s best-known figures.
Undeterred by the hate mail in his inbox — much of it from Americans, Morgan says — the businessman took his message to New Zealand’s third-largest island last week in a campaign to make it pest-free, meaning cleared of feral cats, rats and other pests. He also wants the 400 residents to contain their free-roaming domestic cats.
New Zealand has cleared more than 80 of its 220 offshore islands of invasive species. But Morgan’s target, Stewart Island, is 15 times larger than any other that has been made pest-free, so the effort would be closely watched by conservationists around the world.
Morgan insists he is not anti-cat, just anti-wandering-cat. He wants domestic cats registered, as dogs are, and neutered, kept indoors at all times or taken out on a leash, and not replaced when they die.
The furor has renewed a broader debate about the possibility — however far-fetched — of a New Zealand free of pests. Why not chuck the whole lot? The idea gained steam in early 2012 after Paul Callaghan, a celebrated scientist who died later that year, said the concept could be New Zealand’s equivalent of the Apollo space program.
The notion of a pest-free New Zealand is not without huge challenges, including a massive price tag: A recent report by Landcare Research, a government research arm, said such an undertaking would exceed $20 billion.
Still, scientists here talk dreamily about their 50-year vision of a country with no pest or invasive species. Cows and sheep could stay, but opossums, rats, weasels, ferrets and mice would have to go. And cats?
“Cats are the major sticking point to a pest-free New Zealand,” said James Russell, an ecologist at the University of Auckland.
Cats may be cuddly companions, but they are predators, too: A study this year by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service found that cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds in the United States each year, substantially more than previously thought.
It’s hard to overstate just how much New Zealanders love birds, perhaps because theirs are unlike any others on the planet. Their dollar bills are festooned with birds. Radio New Zealand
plays a bird call before the morning news. There is a multimillion-dollar bird sanctuary just minutes from downtown Wellington. (Morgan calls it “the most expensive cat food factory in the country.”)