Guardians Of Aotearoa: New Zealand's Quest For A Predator-Free Paradise

In New Zealand, an ambitious conservation initiative seeks to restore ecological balance by eradicating invasive predators.

Deep in the South Pacific ocean lies the Land of the Long White Cloud. Called Aotearoa in te reo Māori by the Polynesian navigators that first glimpsed its shores, the country of New Zealand has long been deeply intertwined with its natural environment and indigenous community, resulting in profound connections to the land and a strong commitment to environmental stewardship.

New Zealand’s lush landscapes are unlike any of its nearby—relatively speaking—neighbors. It doesn’t have the arid landscape and quirky marsupials of Australia, nor does it have the humid, heavy heat of tropical Southeast Asian archipelagos. Instead, the island stretches lengthwise across lines of latitude, home to subtropical sunny beaches in the north, snow-covered alps feeding into vibrant glacial lakes in the south, and scattered with temperate forests filled with unique varieties of beeches and ferns.

Aotearoa New Zealand is remarkable in its biodiversity—no two parts of the country are entirely alike. But the diverse landscapes have one thing in common—they’re all under siege by invasive predators that threaten to unravel the delicate balance of its biodiverse ecosystems. 

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Hero image depicts traps for targeting rats and mustelids have to be manually carried into the wilderness.
All photos courtesy of Predator Free NZ Trust
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New Zealand’s Native Birds

New Zealand split off from an ancient supercontinent of Gondwana over 85 million years ago, long before the evolution of mammals. As a result, the country is home to many unique and ancient species of frogs, bats, lizards, and plants that are found nowhere else on earth.

The country particularly prides itself on its unique birdlife—kākāpō (green groundwelling parrots), kākāriki karaka (orange-fronted parakeets), tara iti (a coastal fairy tern), takahẽ (a dodo-like swamphen), and several species of kiwi (nocturnal, flightless birds)—many of which are direct targets for invasive predators. 

Setting a Victor Professional rat trap in the bush. These traps are often baited with peanut butter and are a great backyard trap.
Setting a Victor Professional rat trap in the bush. These traps are often baited with peanut butter and are a great backyard trap.

Thanks to its geographic isolation, many species in the country had no evolutionary need to develop traits to defend themselves against introduced predators. Many of bird species remain flightless and are slow breeders. But this isolation has made them even more vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats, stoats, and brush tailed possums. These rodents kill an estimated 25 million native birds each year, with some 4,000 native species threatened or at risk of extinction.

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Hero image depicts traps for targeting rats and mustelids have to be manually carried into the wilderness.
All photos courtesy of Predator Free NZ Trust

Ridding The Rodents

The last major landmass developed by humans, Polynesian explorers unknowingly brought the first of the rodent stowaways with them when their canoes washed ashore. The arrival of Europeans several centuries later coincided with the intentional introduction of larger mammals like rabbits and brush-tailed possums onto the islands with the intention of hunting them for game. The lack of native predators in New Zealand also benefited these rodent populations, who exploded in size. The settlers introduced stoats (a relative of the ermine) in attempts to control these populations, but unwittingly added another predator to the mix.

Sweet flour paste for luring possums.

In 2011, New Zealand physicist Sir Paul Callaghan proposed the idea of a predator-free country, arguing that with the right tools and investment, the feat could be undertaken successfully. His arguments led to greater political and community endorsement, and passage of a 2016 law prioritized the most pesky predators for eradication—rats, mustelids (stoats, weasels, ferrets) and possums. 

In response, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has launched an ambitious initiative—Predator Free 2050—rallying communities and conservationists nationwide to combat this formidable threat. The initiative aims to eradicate the aforementioned invasives by the year 2050, restoring New Zealand's native flora and fauna to their former glory. 

A tunnel and trap in the bush.

While efforts to clear the rodents aren’t exactly groundbreaking—in the 1960s, Kiwi conservationists managed to clear rats from small offshore islands, and the government has long invested in mammalian predator control efforts. The development of new technologies has made it increasingly easier to identify the repercussions of the country’s pest problems. While the impact of introduced herbivores like deer and goats is more overt—overly-nibbled ranges of brush and grass—wildlife experts are honing in on smaller mammals like never before.

Community Conservation

In addition to leading New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 Strategy, DOC also coordinates the government-funded national program, facilitating a collaborative approach involving more than 30 organizations to support collective planning and sharing of knowledge. DOC Senior Manager Predator Free 2050 Brent Beaven believes in collaborative solutions.

“PF2050 has grown into a nationwide social ‘movement’ that brings together government agencies, iwi and hapū, NGOs, businesses, community groups, landowners, and New Zealanders from all walks of life.” says Beaven.

In fact, achieving the project’s ambitious goals would be impossible without grassroots efforts.

“There are huge landscape-scale projects going on to eradicate rats, mustelids and possums, but actually, nature and wildlife isn’t just “over there” in national parks,” representatives from Predator Free NZ Trust continue to explain. “It’s right here in our towns, cities, suburbs and backyards. It’s up to everyday people to help protect and restore it, which means getting behind the ambitious Predator Free NZ 2050 goal and trapping rats, stoats and possums where we live, work and play.” 

Since its inception a decade ago, the Trust has connected those grassroots dots, providing advice, equipment and encouragement. There are now thousands of people and community groups involved, with the Trust funding $500,000 worth of equipment to more than 100 community groups. 

Communities all over NZ are involved in trapping. Photo by Brighton Trapping

Clad in hi-vis jackets, amateur and professional conservationists alike are assigned patches of land home to loaded trap lines. Guided by GPS, they check each coil trap and bait box for caught predators, replacing each box with fresh bait (variations on toxin-laden cubes of rabbit meat to attract ground rodents or cinnamon-flavored putty smeared across possum traps) and update the status of each trap.

Many DOC operations have installed infrared cameras and miniature microphones near bird nesting sites to keep an eye on nocturnal ongoings. Ink pads are also an effective tracking measure—small tunnels are constructed of cardboard with an ink pad at the entrance. When rodents traipse in to retrieve a chunk of bait, their prints are captured in ink, helping conservationists identify the foot traffic of the pests in their area.

Many community groups use an app to log their trap lines and results for reporting and monitoring.

Some initiatives also include collecting the poisoned predators for autopsies in order to better understand the effectiveness of toxins and whether they may have recently reproduced. Other operations use specially-trained dogs, who can sniff out a pest more effectively than any of the technology traps can.

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Hero image depicts traps for targeting rats and mustelids have to be manually carried into the wilderness.
All photos courtesy of Predator Free NZ Trust

Permanent Pest Control?

Preventing re-invasion is a priority for offshore islands. The largest, Rakiura/Stewart Island, has long been a sanctuary for native birds due to its relative isolation of 25 kilometers off of the mainland. Despite having achieved predator-free status in the past, rats have been known to swim half a mile, infiltrating forest sanctuaries and highlighting the need for continued conservation.  DOC’s National Eradication Team has developed a strategy to eradicate mammalian predators from New Zealand’s offshore islands by drawing on knowledge from over 110 previous island eradications. They're constantly developing new tools and techniques to keep the islands pest-free.

For sections of contiguous Aotearoa, Kiwi conservationists have also employed a sort of gerrymandering strategy—there are now dozens of fenced sanctuaries around the country, protecting zones that have been declared predator-free. Once an area is declared a sanctuary, however, the new challenge is making sure no predators get in.

Trap boxes can be found in NZ's most beautiful places and are signs the area is being protected against introduced predators.

As the Predator Free 2050 campaign has taken off, the feasibility of complete eradication is something that’s been questioned. Simply put, while the country has significantly developed pest-control technology in the last few decades, it still requires extensive monitoring to effectively hold the lines. Others have asked whether it’s ethical to encourage extinguishing the rodents in the name of preserving other species. Yet, it seems as if the general consensus has decided that sacrificing some of the most damaging introduced species is the best way of protecting the country’s native ecosystems.  For example, DOC recommends the use of traps that meet the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee standards to ensure trapped animals do not suffer unnecessarily.

“In the seven years since the Predator Free 2050 goal was adopted, we’ve made great progress, investing in research and innovation, expanding the number of eradication projects around the country, and increasing the area where predators are suppressed to protect native species across millions of hectares. We are on track to prove that predators can be eradicated from large mainland areas and defended from reinvasion without the use of fences such as with Predator Free South Westland. Predator Free Wellington has eradicated possums and mustelids from urban Wellington, becoming New Zealand’s first city to achieve this goal.” Beaven explained.

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Hero image depicts traps for targeting rats and mustelids have to be manually carried into the wilderness.
All photos courtesy of Predator Free NZ Trust

Kaitiakitanga: Aotearoa's Dedication To Conservation

Rooted in Māori tradition, kaitiakitanga embodies the concept of guardianship and environmental stewardship. As stewards of the land, there is a responsibility to protect and preserve its natural treasures for future generations. This thought ideology has long been prioritized in New Zealand environmental management, and the lofty Predator Free 2050 ambitions are no exception.

According to Predator Free NZ Trust, “It’s paying off in a visible way, such as wildlife returning to our gardens, but it’s also a social movement as well, with neighbors connecting with each other and being a part of something important and good for the country.”

Beaven also noted much is still need to maintain the work for decades to come.

“Comprehensive biosecurity plans would need to be developed as part of eradication plans to prevent the re-invasion of introduced predators once they were eradicated. New Zealand has many pest-free offshore islands, which are sanctuaries for native species. We have strict biosecurity arrangements for these islands to maintain their pest-free status and surveillance and response plans in case of pest incursion...We have a responsibility to safeguard our native species, many of which are found only in New Zealand. Controlling introduced predators to protect native wildlife is a necessity here. Each year, an estimated 25 million native birds and their eggs and chicks are eaten alive by rats, possums and stoats and other introduced predators.”

Thanks to the mechanisms of geography millions of years ago, Aotearoa New Zealand has become a biodiversity hotspot like no other. Yet, this evolutionary blessing also comes with a curse. Nearly 40% of all native plants and bird species threatened or at risk of extinction—and to preserve the country’s native flora and fauna for generations to come, strong conservation action needs to be taken now.

A volunteer baiting a possum trap.

While Predator Free 2050 is just the latest in a long series of predator control initiatives, it’s historical in its commitment to a predator-free future. The nationwide innovation, community engagement, and collaboration behind the project have set the momentum towards more permanent outcomes than ever before, paving the way for future generations of inhabitants, and ensuring the preservation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s natural legacy.

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Hero image depicts traps for targeting rats and mustelids have to be manually carried into the wilderness.
All photos courtesy of Predator Free NZ Trust