No more rats: New Zealand to exterminate all introduced predators

The New Zealand government has announced a “world-first” project to make the nation predator free by 2050.

The prime minister, John Key, said on Monday it would undertake a radical pest extermination programme – which if successful would be a global first – aiming to wipe out the introduced species of rats, stoats and possums nation-wide in a mere 34 years.

According to the government, introduced species kill 25m native New Zealand birds a year including the iconic ground-dwelling, flightless Kiwi, which die at a rate of 20 a week, and now number fewer than 70,000.

The government estimates the cost of introduced species to the New Zealand economy and primary sector to be NZ$3.3bn (£1.76bn) a year.

“Our ambition is that by 2050 every single part of New Zealand will be completely free of rats, stoats and possums,” said Key in a statement.

“This is the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world, but we believe if we all work together as a country we can achieve it.”

Existing pest control methods in New Zealand include the controversial and widespread use of 1080 aerial poison drops, trapping and ground baiting, and possum hunting by ground hunters (possum fur has become a vibrant industry in New Zealand, and is used for winter clothing).

Emeritus Professor of Conservation Mick Clout from the University of Auckland said he was “excited” by the “ambitious plan” which if achieved would be a “remarkable world first”.

“Even the intention of making New Zealand predator free is hugely significant and now it has money and the government behind it I believe it is possible, I am actually very excited,” said Clout.

“The biggest challenge will be the rats and mice in urban areas. For this project to work it will need the urban communities to get on board. Possum extermination will be the easiest because they only breed once a year and there are already effective control methods in place.”

Economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan, of the Morgan Foundation, said he was “ecstatic” about the government’s announcement.

“This is the first time the government has really swung in behind investing in New Zealand’s environmental capital,” he said.

“This is a big, ambitious project but with the government making it a priority you will see increased interest in the sector, and further exploration of innovative trapping and extermination techniques beyond toxic chemicals like 1080.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand Forest and Bird was optimistic about the country’s chances of success.

Advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said: “I think 2050 is a conservative goal, we could be on track to doing it by 2040. The government has just come on board but many groups around New Zealand have been working towards being predator-free for years.”

“New Zealand is a world-leader in eradicating rats from the landscape. New Zealand can’t go predator free without targeting the cities so we will have to look to places like Alberta, Canada, on how to tackle rat infestation in an urban environment. But it is doable, and not that hard.

“A predator-free New Zealand has been National party policy for the last three elections, but now it has gone from being the governing party policy to becoming government policy. But National has already invested a lot of money and resources into research on this.

“The biggest hurdle in the end will be public support for the project. That will be the most important facet of this.”

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