I’ve been in Wellington listening to two science symposia Predator Free 2050 Limited and the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge hosted as part of the Society for Conservation Biology 5th Oceania Congress. They were held at Te Papa.
The first looked at how we can enhance the current toolbox to deliver predator free New Zealand and the second at the potential benefits and risks of genetic control tools.
In between the sessions I visited a factory that produces luxury yarns from possum fur.
The interim goal of our Research Strategy is to develop a science solution capable of eradicating at least one small mammalian predator from the mainland by 2025. According to both science experts and field workers, possums are likely to be the easiest of the three target species to eradicate, and achievable using current tools.
Bruce Warburton from Landcare Research shared lessons from the decades-long programme to tackle Bovine TB around the country, Phil Bell explained how Zero Invasive Predators are seeking to remove the elusive last one percent of predators from large landscapes and protect from re-invasion, and Brent Martin talked about the potential of artificial intelligence.
The Woolyarns factory in Lower Hutt seemed a world away from science talks, with halls of gleaming spinning machines, some of them in operation since 1947, helping to turn over $20 million per annum in sales of machine knitting yarns and employ over 50 people.
Managing Director Neil Mackie told me possum fibres are hollow, adding excellent insulating properties to his premium Perino yarns. He sources fur from Basically Bush run by Steve Boot, who buys from contractors and part time trappers looking to supplement their income.
But both men understand the damage possums do to our fauna and flora and support the predator-free goal. They are working on other alternatives to possum fur for future yarns but are keen to discuss how they can utilise the resource as control and eradication operations roll out around the country.
Possums were introduced to New Zealand for fur in 1837 and now number around 30 million.
Back in the conference room the pathway to eradication of rats and stoats from our landscapes looks even more challenging.
Both species have incredible capacity to respond quickly to favourable ecological conditions. Baby stoats are impregnated while still in the nest and females always carry fertile eggs, travelling long distances to seek new food sources. A single pregnant rat has the potential to produce 2000 descendants in just a year.
Together with possums they kill an estimated 68,000 native birds every night. Only 20 percent our native bird species are in a healthy state.
Social scientist Edy MacDonald said while 85% of New Zealanders support conservation, gaining social licence around means to an end can be a much more challenging. Other speakers explained how pathways from public opinion to public policy can be fraught and how the regulatory environment for potential new gene-based technologies is currently poorly developed.
Aroha Te Pareake Mead presented a framework to help consider how Māori might approach a proposal for gene-editing, but warned frameworks are like toothbrushes. “Everyone has one but nobody wants to use someone else’s.” She urged constructive conversations with Māori.
Australians Thomas Prowse and Paul Thomas outlined very early work in modelling and proof of concept trials for creating gene drives in mice. Paul Thomas showed a slide of the “Gartner hype cycle for new tech.” After a “peak of inflated expectations” we may be in the “trough of disillusionment,” he suggests.
At the back of the Te Papa conference room windows open onto Wellington harbour. Below them a right whale breaches, much to the delight of crowds of office workers around the wharves and people out in kayaks.
Right whales were hunted to extinction around the New Zealand coast in a few decades after arrival of the first European settlers. A few survived around the Sub Antarctic Auckland Islands and – thanks to a ban on whaling by most nations – their descendants are increasingly putting in appearances around our coastline.
I take it as an encouraging sign – even our rarest species can make it back to the mainland if we remove the pressures on them.
But achieving the same for our terrestrial fauna will require us to improve the current toolbox as well as add to it.
Do that with ambition and rigour then Predator Free 2050 will be within our reach.