“Predator free New Zealand (pfnz). A Programme to poison a nation”

Late November 2012, a friend received by Email an unusual and out of the blue sales pitch, “a short history of pfnz” and a covering note. It was the blueprint for an extraordinary programme to poison a whole nation and “eliminate” all pests (including cats) based on a new conservation model of a public / private partnership. Its originators wrote that they had been deliberately flying below the radar for around five years. Looking back, there had been signs, but we had never recognised them. Its originators were Les Kelly, a New Zealander who had been working for around 25 years in the Australian mining industry, and Paul Jansen, a former DoC manager who had been involved with kakapo recovery programmes. The two had gone tramping through the New Zealand bush for several months, and Kelly was shocked to find that what he had seen twenty-five years ago as the world’s greatest aviary was now almost silent. In a newspaper interview, Kelly did say that he thought it could have been 1080, but subsequently adopted the official view that the cause was predation of birds by rats and stoats as well as by vegetarian possum. Over the five years of discreet activity they had gathered together some “friends” which included deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, who, it seems, facilitated an invitation to address the National Party’s (conservative) “blue green” forum at Taupo. There followed further meetings with the then Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith (later Minister for Conservation), and other MP’s. Kelly seems to have been thoroughly involved in pursuing his mission, recruiting and networking to build up a support base from the movers and shakers in the corporate conservation sector.With almost a huckster’s rhetoric, Kelly in his Email describes pfnz supporters as “gold standard”. They include a considerable group from the business world such as Don Huse, a professional company director and trustee of the fenced “sanctuary” Zealandia, philanthropist businessman Gareth Morgan, William Rolleston of Federated Farmers and Rick Boven of Stakeholder Strategies Ltd. Their biggest coup was enlisting physicist Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, a trustee of the Zealandia sanctuary who was at the time a very sick man close to death. Callaghan seems to have embraced the concept and added the authority of his position to the programme. It

was also Callaghan who probably made the most accurate partial assessment of pfnz when he called it “this crazy idea of getting rid of these animals for good from the (New Zealand) mainland was worth a go as it just might work”.

To which we could add that on the basis of high failure rate for the smaller island eradications, it is more likely it just might not!

With the push of Callaghan’s involvement the whole thing seemed to gather pace. In Feburary 2012, Forest &Bird organised and sponsored a meeting at Ruapehu of scientists who, smelling enhanced career opportunities, concurred with Callaghan’s conclusions. A further meeting was held in Gisborne, chaired by Gareth Morgan and reported in the Gisborne Herald on 11/6/12. There has also been a scoping document prepared by Landcare Research and DoC in May, 2012. This was called “pest free new zealand” and added as predators vegetarian deer chamois and tahr; in effect all non-native wildlife not behind wire for the purposes of farming are “pests” or predators to be eradicated.A conservation management model like New Zealand’s, which is in denial of the origins and evolution of its environment, needs a lot of money. After all, it is fighting nature, and nature will keep trying to come back. For this reason, embracing corporate funding is almost necessary to maintain an unworkable programme and, in this context, pfnz would seem like a manna from heaven concept to the nations conservation managers. The DoC and Landcare Research scoping paper by Andrea Byrom and Susan Timmins estimates the costs for the whole project to be around $27 billion spread over 40 to 50 years. If they can find that much money, it will be a very considerable cash injection into a science and poisons industry gravy train! “PFNZ” is now well entrenched as a concept and structure complete with a trust comprising notable figures from both the public and private conservation industry. Among them are Rob Fenwick, the chairman of the government science provider, Landcare Research, Kevin O’Connor of DoC, economist/businessman Gareth Morgan, William McCook of OSPRI, the former Animal Health Board, Fran Wilde, chair of Greater Wellington Regional Council, Charles Daugherty of the Ecology Department of Victoria University and several others. Until recently it is still being low keyed in its public profile and certainly evasive on eradication methods with airy claims of “blue sky” technology and self re-setting traps. Never mention poison!

What is missing in the new trust are the originators of pfnz. We know that Jansen has had a job as a special adviser to the Minister of Conservation, but Kelly seems to have dropped out of the picture. As pfnz is potentially one of the world’s greatest gravy trains, it invites the question why. One clue to his fate is on a web site he set up,http://www.predatorfreenz.com/; where he states his opposition to aerial 1080. As aerial 1080 is the honey pot in New Zealand’s conservation, his presence would probably not have rested easily with the rest of the trust. There are currently several projects in progress with all the hallmarks of pfnz involvement, they include trust member Gareth Morgan’s “million dollar mouse” project to aerially spread tonnes of mouse sized baits of brodifacoum rat poison on the sub-Antarctic Antipodes Island. Another is a public-private partnership with wealthy philanthropists, Neil and Annette Plowman, titled “project Janszoon”, for a 30 year programme of aerial poisoning with 1080 and aerial weed spraying to supposedly return the Abel Tasman National Park to the state it was in when Tasman called in 1642. Stewart Island will be the first mainland site to have total eradication. For Stewart Island, the methods proposed are vague, but on the information available it seems it will have will have aerial drops of the environmentally persistent brodifacoum rat poison, the same as was done on the nearby Muttonbird (Titi) Islands.

All information to date on the conduct of the pfnz campaign is couched in military terms, with operations starting from the south and spreading north in sweeps over the nation. It seems reminiscent of Captain Yerex’s futile campaigns against deer in the 1930s. Yerex’s campaign failed because he could not stop animals going back through the lines and into the freshly “cleared’ areas. In a radio interview on the morning programme of Radio New Zealand shortly before his death Paul Callaghan expounded his “vision” of how pfnz would work. The plan, he claimed, would be to set up fenced protected islands, almost arks which had been cleansed of “pests”. Here collections of “iconic” native birds would then be kept, without the flighted ones flying out – hopefully. At this point, the pfnz juggernaut would proceed from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North over the period of some years, destroying every non-nativecreature not held behind wire for the purposes of agriculture. At this point there seems to be a tacit admission that every native species not protected in a fenced sanctuary will also have been destroyed. At the end of the campaign the doors of the sanctuaries will be opened and New Zealand’s “iconic” native birds can re-populate, albeit with a reduced gene pool a poisoned land devoid of ecosystems. What I find amazing about all this is that supposedly sane, allegedly clever people can buy into such a lunatic scheme. Not only will it cost around $27 billion and generate a groundswell of public opposition, but on the basis of the many failures of island eradications on simple uninhabited islands like Birnie in the Kiribatis, Henderson south of Pitcairn (see chapter 6) and Desechio, the prospects for the success of pfnz look hopeless. So far all the activity has been round the edges and pfnz has not yet moved onto large populated areas. Despite a Dominion Post of 24/3/13 three page special on Les Kelly and pfnz, it does not seem to have caused any major public concern so far. However, the paper article did see public opposition as a likely event, primarily they thought from suburbanites, organic life stylers and hippies. An even more myopic view is expressed in a thesis by a masters student under the supervision of Island Eradication proponent, James Russell. It offers the opinion that opposition will be only from a small group of anti-1080 activists. James Russell also stated that pfnz will require the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (Dominion Post 20/3/13). This ignores the fact that, once such a large and potentially disruptive programme gets underway, it could well create considerable antipathy. Already we have seen pfnz trustee Gareth Morgan waging war on cat ownership, so ensuring that the nation’s cat lovers will not support anything he advocates. It is likely that, as the wider population begin to understand the extent and the disruption of pfnz and the consequences for them, there will be further controversy. It will only take a few pictures of innocent pet dogs and other animals suffering the excruciating deaths of 1080 poisoning for any support to swing away from the programme. Already there is considerable disquiet amongst many rural dwellers about current DoC and Tb Free “pest” control and use of toxins. When the size and magnitude of a programme like pfnz, the policing of pest control, and the access that will be required to be given to rural properties, it is a likely that recalcitrant element will arise which will seek to actively work against pfnz.

Transfer that to the mainland, and you can get some idea of the magnitude of the task. Rats are ubiquitous. Wherever humans are, all over the world, there are rats. Even the first Maori settlers brought rats. If we eliminate rats, how do we prevent re-infestation? Tighter border controls; monitoring every vessel right down to fishing boats that arrive at these shores. This ignores “irregular” arrivals”, say a foreign fishing boat wrecking in a storm and rats getting ashore, if indeed when this happens, the whole $27 billion dollar exercise will be for nought.

In the later part of 2014 “pfnz” went public with big promotions and opinion pieces in the major dailies, even articles in praise of Callaghan and the Royal Society from Rod Oram, the financial correspondent in the Sunday Star Times of 30/11/14. There was also an extremely lop sided television presentation that can be seen onhttp://www.tv3.co.nz/tabid/3692/MCat/3304/Default.aspxfeaturing a Department of Conservation officer extolling the necessity of aerial 1080 to save endangered birds and wildlife.Not only has pfnz gone public, but it is now spawning other public/private models. Next Foundation is made up of senior figures from New Zealand education and industry, and includes the almost ubiquitous Rob Fenwick. Among their goals, they claim:- “The Next Foundation has been established with a vision “to create a legacy of environmental and educational excellence for the benefit of future generations of New Zealanders”. The Next Foundation have joined with DoC and father and son businessmen, Gareth and Sam Morgan to form ZIP Ltd whose aim is “zero invasive predators”. All this is being accompanied by a more intensive publicity campaign, such as a “feature” article in the New Yorker of 22 /12/14 titled “The Big Kill – New Zealand’s Crusade to Rid Itself of Mammals”; it is little more than an infomercial for New Zealand’s conservation industry. Looking at it, it seems more than just an image polishing exercise; could it also be part of a sales pitch for wider PPP (public private profiteering) eradication programmes eleswhere, like that already planned for Lord Howe Island? Certainly Norfolk Island and some Hawaiian islands could be likely targets. “pfnz” is now on the road, and its success will not be measured by its ability to save birds, but in the money that can be directed into science establishments, academic institutions and the whole conservation industry. In fact, as it is so unlikely to succeed, it could continue forever, a cynical enhancement of New Zealand’s existing cost plus conservation industry.

All of this ignores two simple and obvious truths. First, the likelihood of failure is so high, even on small and uninhabited islands. The 2011 “Aguila” expedition to poison three small islands only succeeded with one (chapter 6). A failure rate of 66%. For a much larger inhabited nation, success in ridding it of “predators” is just an expensive fantasy. The other truth is the simple and obvious evidence of Stewart Island and Te Urewera National Park: where there are no aerial poisoning operations, the native bird life is in good health. The case can certainly be made that it is not “pests” that are driving our native wildlife to extinction, but an unholy alliance of greed and zealotry.

Bill Benfield.

What if the Predator Free 2050 plan is actually a terrible idea?


By Jamie Steer | Guest writer May 6, 2017

New Zealanders celebrated the government’s ambitious goal to completely eradicate possums, rats and stoats by 2050 – but according to some scientists, the plan is ill-conceived and unlikely to succeed. Ahead of a major conference on the future of New Zealand biodiversity, Dr Jamie Steer argues that Predator Free 2050 needs an urgent rethink.

Last year the Government officially endorsed a plan so apparently uplifting and otherwordly it was compared to space travel – New Zealand’s very own Apollo mission.

The plan is to completely eradicate five of our 31 species of introduced wild mammals, thereby eliminating some of the predators of our cherished native birds. The cost of the plan is estimated at over $30 billion. Once complete – some 35 years from now – we will be a Predator Free New Zealand. Well, sort of, but not really.

To do this, the government assures us, we’ll simply need to “ramp up” the efforts we’ve taken to date to eliminate introduced predatory mammals from some 48 thousand hectares of remote, uninhabited islands. They figure we’ll achieve the same over the remaining 26 million hectares of towns, cities, parks and playgrounds with only moderate further difficulty.

Oh, and we’ll also probably have to use a controversial, new and untested form of genetic engineering that drives our fellow not-originally-from-around-here mammal species extinct by making them infertile.

The plan’s unveiling was a marvelous photo opportunity for the gaggle of ministers in attendance at the announcement; newspapers since have been filled with inspirational stories about the Predator Free New Zealand plan. We have all but fallen over ourselves to offer glowing recitations of the Government’s policies and to wax lyrical about “what if”.

But a few others have remained more circumspect about a plan the late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan once called “ambitious”, but also “crazy”. They wonder at the lack of funding, the technical probability of success and, more disturbingly for its proponents, whether the plan plots the right course at all for conservation in this country.

How did we get here?

It was with this backdrop of events and commentary in mind that a good friend of mine asked me recently “How did it all come to this? How did conservation in New Zealand come to be boiled down to killing stuff? And can this strategy of conservation-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun really be the only option?”

It all began, I explained, in the 1970s when a hippie sub-set of the baby boomers dreamt up an idea they called “ecological restoration”. History, they theorised, could be dialled back, and nature’s wonderful balance restored. The formula was simple: find an ecosystem, figure out the influences that could be ascribed to humans, and get rid of them.

As the climate changed, as the world globalised, as thousands of people from around the world continued to migrate from the country, and as countless more species were introduced or self-dispersed, our role, it was said, was to keep our wildlife the same as it was hundreds of years ago.

It didn’t come to much at first, but in the 1980s conservationists doubled down their efforts, targetting a subset of introduced wildlife they called “invasive species”. Conspicuous and unable to defend themselves, these species were to be ruthlessly scapegoated for the environmental mistakes of the past.

Where are we going?

Since then, New Zealanders have frequently been encouraged to kill invasive species wherever they find them. This is unfortunate because, generally speaking, broadscale control of invasive species has been a failed strategy in this country. We’ve barely been treading water in most areas.

Even our most reviled invasive species – rats, stoats and possums – are still found in all but about 0.2% of their inhabitable range throughout New Zealand. In contrast, our conservation successes (and there have been many) have invariably been due to targetted, sustainable investments in small areas.

Despite this fact, we’re still being conditioned to believe that there are no options. We either kill all these invasive species everywhere, or the native species that we love will all progressively die.

It’s one or the other. But is it really that simple? Are our options really that depleted? I say no.

In fact I reckon that an entirely valid alternative to Predator Free 2050, and the like, is to accept that some of our most vulnerable native species are not going to be able to survive everywhere in New Zealand. We might choose instead to accept that those species are going to be protected mainly on islands and in mainland sanctuaries, not that unlike the way they currently are.

That’s not going to be the case for all our native wildlife mind, remembering that many of our native species – like pukeko, karoro and kãhu – are doing just fine on their own. More often than not they’re every bit as wily as their introduced counterparts. So it’s not going to be one or the other. Our future ecosystems are going to be mongrel, hybrid, mixed-up combinations of native and introduced.

Globally, ecology and conservation movements are beginning to recognise this, moving away from fixating on pristine past states and historic species assemblages. Instead the focus is shifting toward urban and landscape ecology, and ‘novel ecosystems’, comprising mixes of species that have never existed in evolutionary history.

Last year the Ecological Society of America, the world largest group of ecologists, themed their entire conference around life in the “Anthropocene” and how we need to get better at accepting and living within a dynamic, human-influenced nature.

Back to the future?

It has come very late in the piece, but some of us are beginning to realise that the ecosystems of the past cannot represent those of the future on anything more than a token level. We have changed our environment, for better and worse, to the extent that there is no going back now.

A resilient future for life in our country now means adapting our lifestyles to the limits of the earth but also, and this is crucial, accepting that other species and ecosystems need to adapt now too. They’re not all just static museum dioramas for our gratification.

We can still have a healthy, diverse, and productive biodiversity. But we can’t have the same biodiversity we had in the past: probably not even close, because that’s not how life works. Evolution is all one way. Not to a better life, but to a life best adapted for what’s in front of it.

This, of course, is all lost on those conservationists who remain committed to the notion that the influences we have on our environments are all wrong. For them, the best we can do is to try to make nature more like it was in the past, before we inconsiderately came along.

Don’t believe it. The fact of the matter is we have a range of environmental futures open to us now beyond replicating the past and it’s time we started genuinely discussing and exploring them. Let’s question the assumption that going in reverse is the only way forward for conservation in this country.

Dr Jamie Steer has worked and studied in the environmental services industry in New Zealand for close to 20 years. He is passionate about promoting debate on the future of biodiversity management in New Zealand.

The New Must-Have

CHICAGO—Nicolas Cuervo and his neighbors called, texted and pleaded. Finally, after over three months of waiting, their highly coveted order arrived: a crate of stray cats.

“It was almost like getting a newborn,” said Mr. Cuervo, a 44-year-old copywriter, who had three cats from a street pack delivered to him last month.

Now, Mr. Cuervo is waiting some more—to see if he can persuade the beasts to stick around.

Read the whole Wall Street Journal article here.