Before humans arrived in New Zealand, 85 percent of the land was covered in forests. A typical modern landscape looks like this farmland in Canterbury.
The riot of birdsong woke Joseph Banks early that morning. It was January 1770, the beginning of a summer’s day in New Zealand, and the Endeavour was anchored in the smooth waters of Queen Charlotte Sound.
Banks, the Endeavour’s botanist, had spent the previous day, and would spend the next, writing breathlessly in his journal about the cannibalism he was shocked to find among the indigenous Maori; but the cacophony of song that carried across the quarter-mile of sea that separated shore and ship that morning was apparently so remarkable he saw fit to record a note on that, too. The numbers of the birds “were certainly very great,” he wrote.
“Their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable…” Every morning, he added, they began singing at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and chirped incessantly until sunrise, when they stopped, and were silent all day.
But nearly 250 years later, the birds are quiet. Too quiet. There are hardly enough of them left to create a decent morning racket, much less a full-voiced dawn chorus. Only a few small pest-free islands and fenced mainland sanctuaries host enough birds to sing anything approaching what Banks must have woken to that day.
Only 1,500 kokako, a once widespread part of an ancient family of New Zealand wattlebirds, remain extant.
Birds of paradise
Birds are special to New Zealanders. Separated from other landmasses for 80 million years and lacking all land mammals except for bats, the country evolved into an avian haven. Today, nine out of 10 birds and insects are unique to the country; they are, as the late legendary conservationist Don Merton once put it, equivalent to its national monuments:
They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out.
But we are not doing too well on that front. First, canoes from the mythical Maori homeland of Hawaiki brought dogs and rats, and the first humans hunted giant moa to extinction; later, ships from Europe set loose more rats, mice, ferrets, common brushtail possums, stoats, and cats, and they went to work on everything else.
In the roughly 700 years since humans arrived, more than one in four of New Zealand’s native bird species have been wiped out. Today, the country is overrun: approximately 300 million furry little pests spend their nights eating chicks and eggs or stripping vegetation. The problem is so immense and costly that pests are controlled on just one-eighth of conservation land.
In calling ourselves Kiwis, New Zealanders have picked the dubious honor of associating with a shy bird that’s not just nocturnal and flightless but also approaching extinction; 95 percent of kiwi chicks die in their first year in the wild. But it’s hardly a shocking statistic. There are just 126 kakapo left, the world’s only flightless parrot. They are so precious that they’ve all been given names, and the birth of a new chick makes the national news.
The Mokihinui River is one of the last in the country with a nearly undisturbed native forest catchment — and it narrowly escaped being dammed to generate hydro power.
An audacious hope
Hardly surprising, then, that a country that attaches its national identity to its wildlife would take all this a bit personally. Though New Zealanders revel in trapping and killing pests — this September, the University of Auckland is holding a symposium celebrating 50 years of rodent eradication — the latest solution to this problem is outrageous, unprecedented: Kill all 300 million of those furry, murderous little critters. Every last one. And make sure they never come back.
Can it be done? It is a question that New Zealanders have pondered for years, but it took a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mana to gain widespread attention, and the late Sir Paul Callaghan, a nuclear physicist and 2011 New Zealander of the Year, was that kind of person.
On February 13, 2012, a month before his death from colon cancer, he got onstage and played the audience a deafening dawn chorus, then asked them how often they got to hear it. There was no need to wait for a reply.
“The situation has never been as bad as it is now,” he said. “We are facing utter catastrophes in our forests … [they] have never been so silent.”
Kill all the pests, he said. “Let’s get rid of all the damn mustelids, all the rats, all the possums, from the mainland islands of New Zealand. We start with Rakiura. And we work our way up. We can do this. We know how to do it.
“It’s crazy and ambitious, but I think it might be worth a shot.”
The weka are a native bird that have adapted to changes in New Zealand’s environment, though really thrive in areas with pest control.
Since his death, others have taken up the cry. After all, if humans can wipe out billions of passenger pigeons without even trying, then surely with a bit of effort they can make a good dent in the pests.
Later in 2012, a group of New Zealand’s best invasive-species experts got together and decided that if they limited the massacre to mustelids (stoats and ferrets), rodents (rats and mice), and the brushtailed possum it would be possible. Expensive, yes — estimates put it at NZ$27 billion [US$22.6 billion]. Difficult — the timeframe is 50 years. But it was possible.
A trust formed, but one with a definite military thrust requiring a massive volunteer effort. Predator Free New Zealand’s first step is to harness and map grassroots efforts, turning ordinary people into bloodthirsty killers. Plans for late 2014 include the release of a map and app, tracking and linking the efforts of every participant in the country.
The government can’t afford to support it, so they’ll raise the money elsewhere, and then they’ll fight the curries on the beaches, drop poison from the air, and battle through thick bush to lay and check traps. They’ll follow tiny clawed feet and hunt them down — humanely, of course.
The military language is deliberate, trust chairman Rob Fenwick says. “There’s only one way we’re going to motivate this whole army of volunteers — hearts and minds,” he says. “It’s reminding people what is at stake.”
Brushtail possum eats a bird’s egg.
Ready, willing, and able
It’s a lofty goal, but New Zealand has certain things in its favor: small size, three isolated main islands, good forest cover, pest-free offshore sanctuaries, a population that loves its birds, and economic incentives, including protecting its dairy herds from bovine tuberculosis, carried by possums. Then there’s the image problem.
New Zealand’s international 100% Pure tourism marketing campaign, showing off supposedly pristine rivers and mountains, has lately been outed as bullshit. The country was topping the Yale University Environmental Performance Index in 2005, but by 2014 had slipped to 16th. Today, 800 species are at risk of extinction, and water quality in rivers and lakes is steadily declining, with more than half now unsafe for swimming. For a food-basket country that trades on its natural beauty, that doesn’t look good.
This idea — repopulating a devastated country with birds once more — might be a chance to reclaim a piece of that clean, green image. PFNZ trustee Charles Daugherty, a professor of ecology at Wellington’s Victoria University, says it’s an idea that is “uniquely New Zealand.”
There aren’t many other countries where pests are so utterly reviled: where people deliberately aim their cars at possums crossing the road, intent on taking out another good-for-nothing, native-forest-munching, egg-eating bird murderer. “The fact that a country appears more or less coalesced and willing to exterminate an introduced species is quite an unusual thing,” he says. “It’s an issue around national identity. The animals that we will save are, critically, only ours.”
Three years on from Callaghan’s speech, he says people are no longer treating the idea as crazy. “I think it’s developing into a national reality and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t happen, and happen pretty quickly.”
Within a couple of generations, it might be possible to wake at some ungodly hour to the silvery sound of thousands of tiny bells calling in the dawn, as Joseph Banks did long ago. It would be a feat worthy of global attention — and possibly replication.
Daugherty adds that a lot of international wildlife-rescue stories are built around hero species: the elephant, the Bengal tiger. “But the idea of trying to protect the terrestrial habitat of a whole country through a massive volunteer effort? I doubt it has ever been done before.”
Photos: Canterbury, Mokihinui River, and weka by the author. Kokako by Matt Binns. Possum courtesy of Nga Manu Images.
Naomi Arnold has covered climate change from Antarctica, the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, and also reported from Thailand, Australia, and South Korea. She writes a column for her hometown daily, the Nelson Mail, and runs New Zealand longform collection Featured.org.nz.