The New Zealand government has set itself an ambitious agenda —to rid the island nation by the year 2050 of three predatory mammal species, rats, possums and stoats.
Seeing as the land area of New Zealand is bigger than all of Great Britain, the plan has come across as far-fetched to some (one wildlife expert says it’s “fantasy science fiction”). For, how could every rat be found? Even then, with the global flow of goods the way it is, how could the country maintain its rat-free state over time?
But similar efforts, admittedly on a smaller scale, have already proved successful at ridding hundreds of islands around the world of invasive species. Plus, there’s Alberta’s success story with rats. And at 660,000 square kilometres, Alberta is more than twice the size of New Zealand.
“Our ambition is that by 2050 every single part of New Zealand will be completely free of rats, stoats and possums,” said then-Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, last summer 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.”
That was the call-to-arms for the “world-first” project which the government claims is focused on restoring the country’s wild bird population, a national treasure and heavy tourist draw that has seen plummeting populations over the years. 25 million native birds including members of the iconic Kiwi species are killed each year, with predatory mammal species — late-arrivals to New Zealand’s environment — taking much of the blame.
So far, the government has said it will commit $3 billion to the mission, which is being envisioned as requiring the precision and force of a military strike. “The biggest challenge will be the rats and mice in urban areas,” says Mick Clout, Emeritus Professor of Conservation at the University of Auckland, to the Guardian. “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.”
The campaign will depend heavily on pesticides, including one already well in use in New Zealand known as 1080 or sodium monofluoroacetate, delivered by helicopter across the landscape. As well, experts are imagining rat traps of various designs as well as bio-controls, which scientists say could be used to genetically disrupt the rat’s ability to reproduce.
Not everyone is on board with the project, however. Environmentalists are strongly critical of the New Zealand’s current widespread use of the 1080 pesticide, a deadly toxin which is said to kill native as well as non-native wildlife. Protestors have even resorted to acts of terrorism to push the government into changing its approach on 1080.
Others are balking at the sheer logistics of the project. “It’s a fantasy science fiction,” says Wayne Linklater, a wildlife biologist at the Victoria University of Wellington, to the Associated Press. “And it really is seriously distracting us from some really big changes and improvements we can make in biodiversity and the environment now.”
But if Alberta’s experience is anything to go by, the job is doable even on such a grade scale and in every type of environment, wild, rural and urban. All it takes is years of vigilance, a dedicated bunch of folks called the rat patrol and, yes, a good few buckets of rat poison.
Like New Zealand, Alberta was once naturally rat-free. The common Norway rat had only been introduced to North America in the late 1700s and the rodent took its time scampering across the continent. Alberta has its natural defence lines, as well, with the Rocky Mountains to the west, badlands to the south and wide expanses of forest to the north.
But by the 1920s, the rats had made their way into Saskatchewan and by 1950 they were knocking on Alberta’s door. The government responded by setting up a control zone along the Saskatchewan border, committed resources to public education and local eradication efforts and mandated that every municipality put in place its own pest control inspectors.
Alberta also created the provincial rat patrol, which now conducts yearly inspections of every farm site (3,170 at last count) within the rat control zone to hunt down and kill any rats that make it into the province. The whole process has done very well so far. Says a government statement, “The rat control program in Alberta has been successful because of the concern and effort of thousands of citizens and hundreds of pest control inspectors.”
Outbreaks do occur, as for example in 2012 when the city of Medicine Hat found several rats in its landfill. But multiple decades of being almost completely rat-free speak for themselves. And they maybe give inspiration to those New Zealanders on the other side of the world and their far-fetched scheme.