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To meet the high bar of Predator Free 2050, there can’t be any laurel-resting. Here’s a run through of some of the exciting things happening in the PF2050 space. This is the fourth blog in this PF2050 series.

By Brent Beaven, Programme Manager Predator Free 2050

Ship rat and land snail
📷: Ngā Manu images

The Predator Free vision calls for the complete removal of rats, stoats and possums from Aotearoa. We have to take action, they’re causing serious damage.

It’s no small task: these creatures have evolved masterful survival and breeding strategies, honed by millions of years of evolution. If we’re to eradicate them, we’ll need to find their Achilles Heel — some physiological or behavioural trait we can leverage in our work.

That means understanding intimately the things that make them tick: their metabolisms, their motivations, and their fears.

This year, that understanding took a big leap forward when researchers announced they had mapped the entire genome of the ship rat, one of our most destructive pests.

A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all its genes. A ship rat has around 25,000 of them and knowing what each one does will help us better understand how ship rats disperse, and to develop species-specific toxins.

The genome of the Norway rat — another important predator in New Zealand — had already been mapped, and in July, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research scientist Dr Andrew Veale announced that his team has also sequenced the stoat genome. Stoats can be especially difficult to trap, so this intimate knowledge of their physiology will be a huge asset as we continue work on a stoat-specific toxin.

Personality matters

Meanwhile, other teams are focussed on predator personalities.

Presently, pest control typically removes around 95% of a target population, but that’s not enough to achieve the Predator Free goal of eradication. Researchers suspect that the 5% of predators that remain may have an intrinsic distrust or fear of traps and/or poison baits.

Trap set on the Lake Daniell Track, baited with an egg
📷: Baptiste Maryns

A big risk of leaving them behind is that they may pass their wariness on to their progeny, creating more and more ‘shy’ animals. And that five per cent of survivors is very expensive: while ordinary pest suppression costs around $20–$30 a hectare, eradication can be an order of magnitude more expensive.

Manaaki Whenua’s Dr Patrick Garvey has been thinking about what makes a survivor. Things like, might they have predictable behavioural characteristics? If so, how can we manipulate those using innovative cues to overcome their caution?

Garvey identified three such cues: the attractiveness of baits or lures, the ‘fearfulness’ of the trap, and the surrounding environment.

“Manipulating any one of these will increase the likelihood that an animal interacts with a device,” he told the NZ Herald recently.

He suggests switching to lures based on predator scent, rather than food, to attract some wary stoats and weasels, while traps or detection devices might be made less threatening by using more natural-looking materials or setting them below ground.

Holding the line

Eradicating those last few predators from big areas will be challenge enough and that’s just the first part, as preventing them from re-invading is a whole other thing.

Predator-proof fences work, but they’re not practicable, or affordable, to able to be used at the kind of landscape scale that Predator Free requires.

Burwood Predator Proof Fence
📷: Benhi Dixon, DOC

That means using physical features as barriers instead. To date, people have looked to high mountains, or fast-flowing rivers, to turn back predators, but our idea of a barrier is changing all the time.

Wellington’s Miramar peninsula is the site of an intensive urban predator eradication project. Possums have already been removed from the peninsula, and rats are now down to very low numbers. Miramar residents are depending on an entirely artificial barrier to keep them from coming back — Wellington Airport’s main runway.

It turns out that any open ground might provide a suitable deterrent, so that tracts of open farmland are now also being considered as moats to defend cleared areas.

Research will start this year to look at predator eradication on farmland and if the placement of traps and bait stations could detect and remove every predator that reinvades — creating a barrier to movement — or a new type of fence.

One glance at a map of New Zealand shows an abundance of large areas that could be cleared of predators if surrounding farmland was utilised as a barrier.

Species like kakariki karaka/ orange fronted parakeet are at risk due to predators such as mustelids and rats
📷: Sabine Bernert

Trapping too

Virtual boundaries (lines of strategically-laid trapping and surveillance devices) are also holding promise.

Predator control company Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP), assisted by funding from us, NEXT Foundations and Predator Free 2050 Limited, is developing an eradication methodology they’re calling Remove and Protect

While the Remove part still relies largely on aerial toxins, the Protect part will keep predators out of cleared areas of tough terrain where fences are out of the question. What’s more, a virtual barrier can be easily shifted as cleared areas expand.

ZIP has been trialling Remove and Protect in 12,000 hectares of Westland tiger country, the rugged Perth Valley.

Perth River
📷: Jack Mace, DOC

It’s bounded by turbulent rivers — the Perth to the north and the Whataroa to the south, which rats, stoats and possums are reluctant to cross, but the riverbanks are also lined with sophisticated AI detection devices, automatic lure dispensers and traps, all connected to a low frequency radio network.

All 12,000 hectares, once home to an estimated 15,000 possums, were recently declared possum free after none had shown up on any of 143 lured trail cameras for more than 14,000 detection nights, nor in the 700 traps dotting the valley.

Just the same, re-invasion is, for now, a fact of life — stoats re-appeared in the valley in January after months of absence following a 1080 drop. But low numbers of invaders may not be the threat we once imagined.

The CEO of ZIP, Al Bramley, recently told Radio NZ: “The important thing is detecting intruders quickly, and not allowing large populations to establish.

“For possums and stoats, this might be as long as a year, so there’s no need to panic. Meanwhile, we’re continually snuffing them out at the edges, and maintaining predator freedom at the core.”

As our understanding of animal behaviour — what makes an individual skirt around a trap or decide to strike out across a river — improves, Remove and Protect will get easier with time.

Thanks for reading. The Predator Free movement is really important work and it’s going to take a team effort to make it work.

Ngā mihi

Brent Beaven


For more about the PF2050 strategy, including a run through of the tools that are going to get us there, visit https://www.doc.govt.nz/moving-towards-pf2050

We need to eradicate rats, possums and stoats from Aotearoa by 2050. It will take hard work, money, research, collaboration and commitment across generations of Kiwis. Today, we’re diving into the most exciting bit: innovation. This is the third blog in this PF2050 series.

By Brent Beaven, Programme Manager Predator Free 2050

📷: Peta Carey; Brent Beaven and Saddleback/tīeke

Being predator-free means eradicating every last stoat, rat and possum in the country.

That’s a tall order, and it wasn’t immediately clear how we might do it.

But following the announcement of Predator Free 2050 in 2016, Kiwi innovators got straight to work, supported by investment from both the public and private sectors. The ambitious target of PF2050 has already galvanised the innovation community, stimulating research, investment and effort to greater heights.

In less than a decade, pest control has entered a whole new era of cost-effective efficiency and accuracy.

While the hurdles to the ultimate goal might seem high to us right now, the huge technological advances that have already been made confirm that they lower with every breakthrough.

So, what’s the plan?

We, DOC, are leading the programme that currently involves 26 national entities, and all are guided by the PF2050 Strategy, which sets out the interim goals that will get us to the ultimate objective. All over the country, designers and engineers are developing new tools that will help meet those milestones.

There are two key technical challenges facing us – how to scale up the size of the areas we can eradicate; and how to defend these sites from reinvading predators.

Consider this in the context of the country’s difficult topography, and the sheer cost, which means it cannot all be done by manual labour.

Our pest control tools, then, must become smarter, safer and more cost-effective.

Our Tools to Market programme directs $1.4m of investment every year into devices that will do just that, and more. The funding supports the full gamut of steps from proof of concept, through research and development, to prototype testing at a landscape scale. Once proven, they will be available to everyone involved in Predator Free 2050.

It’s a complex issue

Eradicating predators is an order of magnitude harder than simply keeping their numbers down, because you need to get every single individual.  The ability to do this on the mainland, at a large scale, and then defend those areas from reinvasion is a key focus for us.

Both jobs demand smart, autonomous devices, and Tools to Market is funding just such a thing. Print Acquisition for Wildlife Surveillance — or PAWS — is a quest for a low-cost sensing device that automatically identifies a range of predator species. It will work a little like a desktop scanner: when an animal steps onto a pad, sensors capture the outline of its pawprint, then compare it to reference profiles in the device’s own memory. If it comes up with a match to a target species, the device will automatically alert wildlife managers.

The project is jointly led by Lincoln Agritech Ltd, Boffa Miskell and Red Fern Solutions. PAWS will help us know when we’ve reached certain interim Predator Free 2050 goals, such as eradicating all mammalian predators from New Zealand’s offshore islands.

On another detection technology pathway, ZIP (Zero Invasive Predators) recently unveiled an Artificial Intelligence camera. Atop an A-frame, beneath a kea-proof steel cover, is a thermal camera, aimed at the ground, where ZIP’s own ‘Moto-lure’ automatic dispenser leaves a daub of fresh food lure each day.

A sensor trips the camera each time something comes within view. On-board AI software then runs an algorithm that compares the animal’s size and shape against reference profiles in the camera’s memory and confirms an ID. If it turns out to be a rat, stoat or possum, the device sends an alert through ZIP’s radio network to a ranger’s phone.

Clearly, all cameras, sensor pads and traps need an effective long-lasting, attractive lure, and that’s been the focus of Wellington UniVentures, the commercial arm of Victoria University. Some food lures work well with rats, but they don’t keep well in the backcountry.

Dr Michael Jackson and colleagues have developed instead an encapsulated rat lure based on chemical compounds. A device broadcasts those compounds a little at a time, so that one capsule might last six months or more, dramatically reducing the time and cost of replenishment.

At the end of the day

The second key challenge for PF2050, is changing the scale to “much larger”.  Our largest New Zealand eradication to date has been Campbell Island, which is approximately 30,000ha.  We need to get much bigger than this, and this challenge demands new tools and techniques.

For instance, stoats are presently controlled either directly by trapping — at huge labour cost — or indirectly during 1080 operations.  We need a more targeted, stoat-specific toxin, which is why Tools to Market is funding the development of para-aminopropiophenone, or PAPP, for short.

PAPP, injected into fresh mince, is already used in ground control, but to meet the scale of PF2050’s goals, it must ideally be spread from the air. So, researchers are working on an encapsulated bait that will both survive being dropped from the air and remain fresh.

Any eradication will rely heavily on accurate, targeted applications of toxins, often in difficult terrain, or in remote locations such as offshore islands. Supported by a $790,000-investment from Tools to Market, Kiwi startup Environment & Conservation Technologies Ltd (ECT) are testing a new, lightweight bait spreader that could be used under a heavy-lift drone. That testing will use non-toxic baits to determine whether such a device could deliver the required target bait density safely and at reasonable cost.

In the backcountry of the future, a PAWS or Artificial Intelligence device might send an alert directly to an autonomous drone, then­ guide it straight to the site of an incursion.

Tools to Market is, in effect, investing in ingenuity and imagination, and with each problem those talents solve, we take another step closer to being predator-free by 2050.

I’m looking forward to what the future holds in the innovation space. Watch this space, we’ll keep you updated.

Ngā mihi

Brent Beaven


📷: PF2050

For more about the PF2050 strategy, including a run through of the tools that are going to get us there, visit https://www.doc.govt.nz/moving-towards-pf2050

The goal is to eradicate rats, possums and stoats from Aotearoa by 2050. It will take a lot of hard work, money, research, collaboration and commitment across generations of Kiwis. So why is it necessary? This is the second blog in this PF2050 series.

By Brent Beaven, Programme Manager Predator Free 2050

Brent and a tīeke (saddleback) 📷: Peta Carey

Aotearoa has some of the most ancient and unique wildlife on Earth. Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Jared Diamond once wrote that our biota was “as close as we will get to the opportunity to study life on another planet.”

Eighty-five million years ago, mammals hadn’t yet spread to the southern reaches of Gondwana, so that when Zealandia split from the ancient supercontinent, they missed the boat.

The passengers were instead birds, plants, insects and reptiles. That’s why our only native mammals are those that could either fly here (bats) or swim here (seals).

Long-tailed bat, our tiny native land mammal 📷: Colin O’Donnell DOC

With four-legged mammals missing, birds evolved to fill the vacuum. Kōkako climbed like squirrels, while kiwi hunted invertebrates in the leaf litter by smell, much as a hedgehog might. The only predators were other birds: the huge pouākai (Haast’s eagle) which was a moa-killer, Eyles’ harrier, and the whēkau (laughing owl). These raptors hunted by keen eyesight, so their prey evolved cryptic camouflage — the mossy green mosaic of the kākāpō, the blue-grey “wet rock” look of the whio — and they learned to keep perfectly still when predators were about.

Whio on a log, 📷: Sabine Bernert

Evolution is driven by danger or need, and without much of either, Zealandia’s creatures were loath to change. That’s why our fauna is famous for its ‘ancient’ species: the tuatara, a relic from 200 million years ago; our native frogs, all but unaltered in 70 million years. Noted Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, called it “a completely different experiment in evolution to the rest of the world.”

Crucially, catastrophically, it’s also well-known for being rather smelly.

Unlike their counterparts overseas, many of our birds, our snails, our lizards — even our wētā — give off a perfume so strong and distinctive that sniffer dogs can be trained to specialise in tracking these various creatures.

Kākāpō chick. Kākāpō are known for their sweet scent 📷: Jayne Ramage DOC

Eight hundred years ago, Zealandia became Aotearoa when the great waka arrived. Aboard, there were kurī (dogs) and kiore (rats), and their sharp sense of smell led them straight to native wildlife, which obligingly stayed rooted to the spot.

Four hundred years later, the Europeans brought a whole other bestiary of keen-nosed predators — more rats (most disastrously, the ship rat, an agile tree climber), mice, possums, stoats, ferrets, weasels, hedgehogs, cats and pigs.

Meanwhile, the forests and wetlands continued to vanish before the flint and the axe, so that within 750 years of human arrival, half of New Zealand’s vertebrate fauna had disappeared.

At least 45 bird species went extinct.

Stoat with chick, 📷: David Hallet

Plus three frogs, three lizards, a bat, a freshwater fish and as many as nine plant species are gone forever. We will never know how many invertebrates we’ve lost. Aotearoa was ground zero for one of the worst extinction episodes in modern history. Haast’s magnificent eagle, Eyles’ harrier, and the laughing owl are all gone, along with many of the creatures they called food.

Sadly, that’s not just natural history. Today, some 4000 native species are still at some kind of risk – one of the highest proportions in the world. Around a quarter of them are in real danger of extinction. Almost 160 are getting management at only one site, which means those populations could be lost to a single disaster. There are many causes: loss of habitat or preferred food; competition from exotic species; pollution; even climate change, but overwhelmingly the problem continues to be those sharp-nosed introduced predators.

Without pest control, 95 per cent of young kiwi don’t make it to their first birthday.

If we were to let them, introduced predators — mainly stoats — would carve 2.5 per cent off Northland kiwi populations every single year. To extrapolate that rate of loss across all kiwi species around the country is to conclude that, without our help, they could be extinct in the mainland wild within two human generations.

Kiwi and DOC ranger, 📷: Sabine Bernert

Every night, dozens of other native species are plundered. In 2009, Landcare Research ecologist John Innes calculated that possums, stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats, mice, hedgehogs, cats and pigs kill more than 25 million native birds each year.

The wonder of those numbers is that our native species have even hung on this long, and that’s in part thanks to many decades of effort by conservation and pest control workers and volunteers.

Historically, the battle against predators has tried to defend a line, using traps, bait stations and aerial poisoning to blunt the worst of their destruction. It has always been about buying our wildlife a bit of breathing space to recover their numbers.

Aerial control, 📷: DOC

The Predator Free proposition is a step change from piecemeal control, to coordinated, progressive nationwide eradication. At present, we spend tens of millions of dollars every year on the treadmill of temporary control — a gambit with no end.

The Predator Free 2050 strategy is about funding innovation, testing and implementation to put an end to the ravages of rats, stoats and possums once and for all. Rather than endlessly meeting maintenance costs, PF2050 is about up-front investment in an enduring solution, leaving much lower “tail costs”.

Importantly, it literally pushes out the boundaries of predator control, swapping intermittent, localised operations for a sustained push towards eradication across entire landscapes, both forests and farmland, and in our cities.

Best of all, our biodiversity can thrive again, free from the depredations of the three most destructive pests to have reached our shores. Aotearoa holds one of the most unenvied extinction records of any nation and PF2050 offers us the chance of a new reputation, as the first in the world to take a stand for our taonga.


Find out more about our work controlling predators, plus a practical guide to trapping and information about the latest predator control innovation, head to our website: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/


#OneStepCloserPF2050 📷: Sabine Bernert