Australia's brushtail possum is a big problem in New Zealand. Without natural predators, possums eat native species out of food and habitat, as well as carry bovine tuberculosis which threatens the country's cattle industry. That's why, since the 1950s, New Zealand's government has used a poison called sodium fluorocetate — known commercially as 1080 — to manage their numbers. But this is becoming increasingly controversial.
The issue is that 1080 tends to poison everything, not just its target pest. It's banned in most US states as well as Brazil, Belize, Cuba, Laos, Slovenia and Thailand, but not only is New Zealand now buying 80 percent of the world's supply, they're also looking to build their own chemical plant to shore up stocks.
According to Mandy Carter, Head of Campaigns for SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation), the chemical's indiscriminate toxicity is a huge cause for concern. She explains that 1080 is placed into bait and dropped over large areas via airplane, and livestock deaths commonly occur as a result. "Pet deaths are also anecdotal," she says, "but nobody has an interest in finding out the truth."
When an animal consumes 1080 it usually takes 2-3 hours to die, ultimately succumbing to heart or respiratory failure. Like most poisons 1080 disrupts the ability of cells to obtain energy from the body, causing them to shut down. During this time, animals experience stomach cramps, muscle spasms, and laboured breathing. In dogs, it's said to cause haphazard, uncontrollable running.
Despite how nasty this sounds, Carter believes that 1080 hasn't made a dent in the nation's possum problem. She claims that possum population estimates are still as high as 70 million. "The Department of Conservation seems intent on looking like they're dealing with the problem, but it's having a detrimental effect on New Zealand's reputation." According to her, the large amounts of money being funnelled to 1080s manufacturer, Tull Chemicals in Alabama, should be used to fund less cruel, local solutions.
When we contacted New Zealand's Department of Conservation, a ranger speaking under the condition of anonymity told us claims like these are unfounded. "People say we're dropping tonnes of poison, but we're actually dropping large quantities of bait. If you were to measure the poison it would be in kilos," he told VICE.
Although he admitted other animals sometimes were effected, he maintained that the trade-off was acceptable. "New Zealand uses so much of the poison because we are one of the few land masses that doesn't have protected mammals," he said, referring to the country's generally stable populations of native wildlife. As he mentioned, there have been very marginal impacts on other species, including pets.
Nevertheless, New Zealand has seen repeated calls to ban 1080, so much so that in 2002 the Environmental Risk Management Authority implemented a five year study on its impact. They concluded in 2007 that "there is no practical alternative to the continued use of 1080" but promised to tighten controls. In 2011 the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, also offered her rather passionate support for the poison. "It is seldom that I come to such a strong conclusion at the end of an investigation," she wrote. "But much of our identity as New Zealanders, along with the clean green brand with which we market our country to the world, is based on the ecosystems these pests are bent on destroying. We cannot allow our forests to die."
Currently, no further reviews are planned. According to the government's website on 1080, New Zealand receives just under two kilograms of bait per hectare, per year.
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