Let’s start with the flightless kakapo parrot. When this New Zealand bird species was on the verge of extinction in the early 1980s, a drastic decision was made. The entire population was moved from Rakiura Island, the southernmost point of New Zealand, to a few small islands nearby. Only there they will be safe from predators. And yes, they’re still there, 252 to be exact: yellow-green birds that wake up at night and wander through the woods, innocently looking at the world with their wide eyes.
The kakapo problem is the problem of many New Zealand birds, reptiles and insects: they are no match for the mammals that came to the islands with humans in recent centuries. They have evolved for tens of millions of years without a distant predator in sight. The local fauna rendered it defenseless against the cats, rats, and possums that now inhabit the land in large numbers.
But recently there is hope for kakapo. Conservationists and scientists announced a project this summer whose scale is almost unimaginable: They want to make all of Rakiura, also known as Stewart Island, “predator-free.” That’s for an island the size of Zeeland, where 400 people live and 30,000 tourists come every year.
It’s only the beginning. New Zealand aims to be completely free of predators by 2050: all mice, stoats and cats should be gone. We are working on Aotearoa (Maori name for New Zealand, red.) where our original gender Save from extinction And it thrives with us,” according to a government website. The hope is that Rakiura will be a model for what needs to be done across the country.
‘that it Not a new idea to eradicate predators on an entire island,” says Campbell Leakey, Project Director of Predator Free Rakura, a collaboration between governments, Māori representatives and local (tourist) businesses. New Zealand has a fairly long history in this field. But the scale at which we will attempt now is not preceded.
Yes, this task could succeed, Leakey believes. It targets six species in rakura: three species of mice, feral cats, bull couscous and hedgehogs. Hundreds of thousands of animals in total. “It will not be easy, it will certainly be a challenge, but it is possible. A lot has changed in the past five years: we now have the vision and the technologies to make it happen.
He talks about traps with radio communication, so that they can report if an animal is in them. “Someone used to get through all those traps, and now you know exactly where to go.” There are also developments with attractants that keep working for a very long time. Then there are cameras with artificial intelligence so you can scan large areas for unwanted species. If a new rat or fox appears after extermination, quick action can be taken with the help of this.
It takes all this money to apply, a lot of money. Leckie is believed to be worth 50 to 60 million euros. Funding for the early years, in which a detailed plan for the approach is being developed, was completed this summer. Predator Free Rakiura and the National Research Institute Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research are jointly providing 1.7 million euros.
The project is also interesting to scientists, says Chris Jones, team leader for the Animal and Environmental Conservation Department at the research institute. For each pest, we need to know how many they are, where they live and the best way to get them out. Hedgehogs, for example, have not been completely eradicated. And in what order should you proceed? You don’t want to catch mice, for example, and then cats chase birds more actively. In addition, there are also statistical questions: how do you know that the last rat or hedgehog is gone?
These are some of the research questions he’s considering, but he doesn’t have a ready-made list yet, Jones asserts. “Historically, scientists have come up with and tested great ideas,” he says. We don’t want to be arrogant now. With the local community, including Māori, we want to identify the knowledge required. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about this project.
Yes, says Luis Valenti, an evolutionary biologist and researcher at Naturalis, making the rakura free of predators is a good idea. “It’s the only way to save the biodiversity of this island,” he asserts. According to him, the extermination of introduced animals is the most effective way to protect the original nature: from a American study For example, in 2016, which recorded 251 excisions, 236 species of native animals benefited. Increase their number or distribution.
Valenti believes that nature in New Zealand is definitely worth the effort. “ Precisely because New Zealand has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, species of animals have sprung up here that you won’t find anywhere else. Bridge lizards, for example, are a species of large reptiles that are very different from any of their relatives. Many of these unique animal species have already become extinct: of the seventy species of birds on Earth, thirty have already disappeared. If you do nothing, it will continue like this.
Campbell Leakey of Predator Free Rakiura is tasked with avoiding this scenario. In twenty years, he hopes, the Rakiura skies will once again be filled with birds that are now endangered. Then the kiwi, also a small flightless bird, roams the gardens of people at night, much more often than now. “And,” he says, “there will also be more tourists and residents who can make a living from tourism.”
But he says the major change will be another. If this works, we will show you how far you can go to protect nature. This could be a turning point for what people think is possible.
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