What is biodiversity? The challenges of making New Zealand predator-free

Are wild deer and cats pests? A new report says getting people to agree on what biodiversity is, and how to control pests is going to be critical if NZ is to be predator-free.

Words Nadene Hall

Uncertainty, conflicts, and inadequate planning could hamper progress towards a predator-free NZ, and it will be important to prepare for future scenarios now.

That’s according to a new BioHeritage Challenge report which maps out the landscape of social, ethical, and cultural considerations surrounding New Zealand’s target of becoming predator-free.

The report follows two years of deliberation by an expert bioethics panel. It found that achieving a predator-free NZ is as much about people as it is about technology. It reports failure to prepare adequately could result in lost conservation opportunities and perhaps even preventable disasters.

“Biodiversity can mean different things to different people or groups,” says Associate Professor James Russell, co-convener of the Bioethics Panel that produced the report. “Different people or groups can then be at odds about how to maintain biodiversity.

“For example, not all New Zealanders wish to remove an introduced species, even when that species has negative effects on the environment. One example is deer hunting, an important cultural and economic activity in many rural communities, despite the damage that deer cause in forested areas.”

It highlights a significant challenge for Predator Free NZ because the goal cannot be achieved without collective, national-scale action. The report says to get the backing of New Zealanders, there needs to be widespread social acceptance of predator control plans.

The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and is endangered.

“Traditional pest control technologies may need to either work in tandem with or be replaced by, new technologies for eliminating the last survivors,” says Russell. “Social acceptance will depend on the specifics of these new technologies and will likely differ among groups.”

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The Predator Free NZ goal is critical when it comes to saving Aotearoa’s native species. The combined impact of human activities and invasive mammalian predator introductions has led to the extinction of more than 40 percent of NZ’s terrestrial bird species.

Of the bird species that remain, roughly one-third are in serious trouble, with a further half in some trouble. Similarly, one-third of reptiles are in decline.

While Predator Free NZ targets the eradication of selected mammal species, its fundamental goal is to restore native species and ecosystems. This also has challenges.

“If the Predator Free NZ targets are met, removal of predation and competition from rats, stoats, and possums will not only impact native species but could also affect other introduced species.

“For example, mice might increase through competitor release, especially in mast seeding years in beech forests. It may also make cats a more prominent limiting factor for some native wildlife.”

The Bioethics Panel that wrote the report brought together a wide range of academic, industry and community experts. The Panel is part of a larger BioHeritage collaboration called High-Tech Solutions to Invasive Mammal Pest Control.

“The Panel’s primary aim is to examine the general issues rather than the debates surrounding any particular technology,” Russell says.

“We intend this report as a starting point for an ongoing discussion. It’s not a fully comprehensive survey of the issues and is certainly not the final word.”

NZ Lifestyle Block This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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