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
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.
For more about the PF2050 strategy, including a run through of the tools that are going to get us there, visit www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/innovative-tools-and-technology