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As our native species perish, Predator Free NZ is more important than ever

Sir Rob Fenwick: the single most powerful ingredient to engage the community is hope – and milestones create hope. Photo/Simon Young/Listener

New Zealand is facing the point of no return with its precious native species, says Sir Rob Fenwick, but the people working to make the country predator free are hitting milestones.

Despite apparent widespread support for numerous environmental campaigns, such as Zero Carbon Act NZ, Predator Free NZ and Save Our Kauri, some Kiwis remain sceptical and see these causes as delusional and ultimately unattainable.

Over the years I’ve supported or started a few of them. Zero Waste is a case in point. The slogan may be an aspirational bumper sticker, but the Zero Waste Network’s incremental successes were definitely worth the effort: stretching the envelope of possibilities for local government’s waste-minimisation plans; helping to facilitate passage of the Waste Minimisation Act; driving sustainable resource recovery, such as municipal composting, and, ultimately, a focus on the plastic crisis.

Another is the Predator Free NZ movement. Has such an ambitious slogan achieved any incremental gains in the decade or so since its creation?

In two words, demonstrably yes.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Its first achievement is bipartisan support. It was launched by National Prime Minister John Key, with support from his lieutenant Steven Joyce and popular Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, who sensed centre-right Kiwis becoming increasingly worried about the plight of nature.

For Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s coalition Government, having committed to the Greens’ promise to increase Department of Conservation (DoC) funding, Predator Free 2050 was a no-brainer. Green Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage’s vision to finally resource DoC to fulfil its statutory obligations to protect indigenous biodiversity, rather than preside over relentless decline, is commendable and, hopefully, will win National’s Blue-Green support.

Ably led by director-general Lou Sanson, DoC has plenty of challenges. Just when we thought sanity would prevail on the 1080 pest-control issue, following ex-Parliamentary Commissioner Jan Wright’s declaration that 1080 was essential for the department’s predator toolbox, another skirmish broke out last year, with ugly undertones of violent intimidation against dedicated DoC workers and contractors. It does a reputable organisation such as the SPCA no credit to join this motley crew.

Northland green gecko: rare. Photo/Getty Images

Compulsory cat registration

Another significant milestone for the Predator Free banner is economist Gareth Morgan’s “Cats to Go” crusade. In perhaps one of his most effective, if at times a tad undiplomatic, provocations, Morgan made the point that a predator management plan without a strategy to deal with cats was incoherent.

Once it was clear his message targeted responsible domestic cat ownership and destruction of feral cats, many local government leaders embraced it, despite the predictable outcry from a well-organised cat lobby.

Dunedin City Council’s proposal to a Local Government New Zealand conference obliging local authorities to compulsorily register cats passed, by a whisker.

Early last year, Wellington City Council introduced a by-law that made microchipping of all cats compulsory. Auckland Council proposes to introduce a plan to dispatch any non-microchipped cat caught in “high ecological value sites”.

Environment Southland followed, proposing cat regulations that include a “sunset clause” in certain areas, so that cat owners would not be able to replace cats once their pets had died.

There was agreement between representatives of conservation, cat welfare, health and primary industry groups to establish a National Cat Management Strategy.

In a shout-out to Morgan, none other than Duncan Garner, of Newshub’s The AM Show, conceded on national television that he’d changed his mind on the issue and now favoured active management of cats.

Kea: under threat. Photo/Getty Images

Appetite to invest in nature

The creation of funding agency Predator Free 2050 Ltd was a Government experiment to determine the private sector’s appetite to invest in nature. If the Government put $28 million on the table, would third parties match it 1:2? Within a couple of years, the agency created a roughly $100 million fund to do landscape-scale predator eradication on sites all over the country.

Credit should go to philanthropic organisations such as the Next, Rata and Tindall foundations and Foundation North, and all the regional councils that want to align with a nationally co-ordinated programme with measurable targets towards eradicating possums, stoats and rats by 2050.

The experiment proven, the Government should continue to back this funding model, as it represents great value for taxpayers.

Perhaps the most profound illustration of incremental gain is found in the Predator Free NZ Trust, the independent charitable body established to connect and support the growing army of conservation volunteers who give innumerable hours to manage pests on their local reserves, farms, marae and in their own backyards. With support from DoC, Kiwibank and the Morgan Foundation, the trust has nurtured a groundswell of national support, with new groups sprouting up in urban and rural neighbourhoods, all working together to suppress predators and celebrate the return of the birds. Its online following is soaring.

Averting extinctions

One bird definitely benefiting from increasing predator-free acreage is the kiwi. Kiwis for Kiwi Trust’s ambition is to reverse the -2% annual decline in the national kiwi population to +2%. This relies on safe areas to release chicks incubated from eggs that were lifted from tagged wild birds.

Kiwi, like so many native species, are facing the point of no return – when the loss of critical mass or genetic diversity shrinks and extinction becomes inevitable.

This generation of New Zealanders, and the next, will be the last ones to have a real shot at reversing the decline and averting extinctions. This is no bumper sticker.

Although progress is real, the pace is incremental. With these public, private and NGO organisations now willing to work collaboratively, we must hit the accelerator.

We conservationists see ourselves as future seekers trying to map a sustainable pathway for the next few centuries, rather than, as some would paint us, trying to recreate the past.

For New Zealand, which is highly reliant on natural capital, future generations will need productive soils, rich biodiversity, healthy freshwater and an abundant marine environment for their social and economic well-being. All measures by the Ministry for the Environment and others of the state of these natural assets show a decline. Reversing trends takes huge effort. The fewer the participants, the greater the effort required by the few.

The single most powerful ingredient to engage the community is hope – and milestones create hope. But conservation needs continual community support. There’s no shortage of credible organisations to which you can donate your money.

Conservationist and retired businessman Sir Rob Fenwick co-founded municipal composter Living Earth, is a co-founder of the Predator Free NZ Trust, a director of Predator Free 2050 and the chair of the Kiwi Trust, and has numerous other governance roles.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.