Two years ago, New Zealand embarked on an ambitious effort to rid the country of every single rat, stoat, and possum. The invasive mammals were killing around 25 million of the country’s native, flightless birds each year, and the government wanted to give its rare fauna a chance at survival.
If New Zealand stopped controlling its invasive mammal populations, “we would lose more than 95 percent of our native birdlife,” says Dan Tompkins, who’s in charge of the science strategy for Predator Free 2050 Limited, a government-created company tasked with making this plan a reality. Tompkins feels strongly that the government’s plan is the right thing to do for New Zealand, but he knows it won’t be easy.
“We can do pretty well at getting them down to low enough numbers that benefits the native biodiversity, but if we really wanted to eradicate, and eradicate large areas, we are going to need something new,” he says. He means new killing tools.
Scientists in New Zealand have floated the idea of developing targeted toxins that would kill only certain species or manipulating DNA to prevent the mammals from reproducing, but these controversial techniques are nowhere near ready to deploy, Tompkins says.
The government does have some creative allies in its mammal eradication effort. One of them is Christine Daniel, an environmental studies teacher at Sunnyhills Primary School in Auckland. She’s been teaching all 600 of her students, ages 5 to 11, about the importance of killing invasive mammals. She’s even had them set traps and tracking tunnels around the school.
“It's a sad irony that I am teaching them about killing soft furry animals, but it really is to preserve our beautiful environment here in New Zealand,” she says. “We need to win the hearts and minds of the kids,” so they can “realize that [invasive mammals] can look cute — but they’re not cute here.”
VICE News traveled to New Zealand to see what its citizens are doing to make the country predator-free.
This segment originally aired March 23, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.