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The man (and his dog) making predator-free NZ possible

Scott, with Milly at his feet and another Conservation Dog Kosher. Photo / Lois Clayton

Sick of walking the line to find and clear predator traps, Scott Sambell added technology – and a rat-detecting dog Milly – to his arsenal. As Kinsa Hays discovered, the more strategic approach is raising hopes Predator-Free NZ could be a reality earlier than 2050.

Rat-catcher extraordinaire

Scott Sambell describes himself as a rat-catcher but you won’t find him under suburban houses. Instead, he and his terrier Milly locate them on New Zealand’s offshore islands (and one in a lake) to protect the diversity of life in those places, 80 percent of which can no longer exist on our mainland.

Furthermore, he likes to solve problems such as reducing those endless trips along trapping lines while attempting to protect our birdlife and native creatures. How to save all that walking? Technology to the rescue!

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Practical Scott taught himself how to use software programs, working with a platform that includes mobile and web apps that he configures to meet specific needs. He added real-time sensors to traps, developing and improving the system on Glenfern Sanctuary, Great Barrier Island, on a peninsula behind a not-quite predator-proof fence.

The platform is GIS (Geographic Information Systems) based. Everything about the platform is spatial; it connects geography with data. Scott made maps of each trap’s location. When the regular ‘I’m happy’ signal from a trap changes status, anyone, from the Island to New York can view these web maps on the internet, and see which trap has caught a rat and where it’s located.

This new tactic has great promise, making Predator Free NZ by 2050 seem possible. Scott Sambell and his company Ethos Environmental are advocating the use of these interactive maps and traps to save further New Zealand species from extinction. Of course, it can be used to save species anywhere.

How Scott brought together GIS and conservation and applied the latest technology to the challenges we’ve always faced led to acknowledgement in October. In the New Zealand Spatial Excellence Awards (NZSEA), his company, Ethos Environmental, not only was the winner of Environment and Sustainability category, but also took home the Supreme Award of the NZSEA 2018, a massive achievement.

Not that he even mentioned this to me during the interview. A very modest person is Scott. So is his scientist wife, Dr Emma Cronin. She encouraged Scott to bring methodology into the field, replacing the rip, shit and bust, let’s catch ‘em approach that was his previous method.

Milly at work, rocking her volcanic rock boots. Photo / Ethos Environmental

Paw patrol

Another tool in the environmental industry is the Conservation Dog programme, very special to Scott. Milly, a Jack Russell/Foxy cross is Scott’s rat detector. He trained her himself to sniff out all four species of rodent in New Zealand that are decimating our native creatures. 

Offshore, by boat, plane or helicopter, Milly and Scott are dropped off at an island. Once Milly has her Conservation Dog coat and muzzle on, she changes into a working dog, loving it, sensitive nose alert for her quarry.

Milly even has her own dashboard online, recording that Scott followed behind her and has logged 644.2 kilometres so far this year (at the time of writing).

“What’s been the biggest thrill for you?” I ask him.

“When a species that has become locally extinct returns and breeds,” he says with a grin. “At Glenfern, after many years trying, we put in a large pond with a liner to attract back the brown teal/pāteke, a native duck. Nothing happened. Then one day I was riding by the pond and noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped in awe. Swimming by was a female pāteke with a string of ducklings behind her. They’d bred and we hadn’t even noticed!”

Not long ago, I overheard a conversation between a Dutch and Irish tourist. “We haven’t any native species left in our country,” they each said. Can you imagine if that happened here?

Milly retrieving a rat from a trap. Photo / Ethos Environmental

Putting Predator-Free NZ on fast-forward

New Zealand has always been home to many unusual species of birds and lizards, but too many have steadily lost ground to human settlement and the mammals we’ve introduced. Their plight has worsened due to growing numbers of three predators: rats, stoats, and possums. At stake is our biodiversity. Already, more than 40 species have gone extinct.

Seeing the expanding threat, the New Zealand government has declared an ambitious goal of ridding the country of all three of these predators by 2050. On an island larger than Great Britain, that’s a bold objective and it will require advancements in science and technology to pull it off.

As well as Ethos Environmental, Scott has another company, Econode which offers the SmartTrap remote sensing and data management system. 

“We created a company called Econode which is solely responsible for the remote sensing side of things, handling the collaboration of several different parties,” Scott commented. “I mainly deal with how the data is used and how people interact with it. Ethos Environmental is a separate company which is more generalised.”

Scott has made a huge step using technology to enhance efficiency. “Up until now, the greatest number of traps any one person can check each day has been 50,” he says.

“Now that we only have to check the traps that have caught something, a single person can manage thousands of traps.

“And if 90 percent of households put a DOC200 trap in their backyards, I reckon Predator-Free NZ could happen by 2030.”

Facts and benefits of Scott Sambell’s conservation technology:

  1. Sensor-equipped traps that communicate when triggered help New Zealand gain ground on predators.

  2. These sensors are connected to a network, the Internet of Things, for all to see.

  3. A geographic information system (GIS) is configured to display real-time signals from the traps, enabling anyone to map environments in trouble.

  4. When the traps catch something, the map lights up with the trap’s exact location, saving manpower and time to reset it.

  5. Community Care groups can utilise and configure the app to suit their own particular needs.