Kaitake reaches zero
November 25, 2021 4:24 pm
It’s been over six months since cameras or specially trained dogs have detected a possum across almost 1000 hectares of Kaitake farmland in Taranaki. The area now has possum free status – a huge accomplishment in the Predator Free mission. But it took a wide range of partnerships, skill sets and collaboration to get there.
The journey began with the Taranaki Regional Council’s self-help possum control programme that maintained possums at low levels on the farmland surrounding Taranaki Maunga for nearly 30 years. More recently, investment by the NEXT Foundation saw the formation of Taranaki Mounga – a community-led initiative working with iwi and agencies to restore the ecological vitality of Mt Taranaki.
The maunga is surrounded by farms, urban areas, and more than 300 waterways, which together have the potential to work as barriers when it comes to widening the predator free efforts. This idea was picked up by a number of eager pest control experts within the Regional Council, and led to the beginning of the Towards Predator-Free Taranaki project – Taranaki Taku Tūranga.
The concept started off with the use of Google Maps and then transferred to reality with the help of Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP), who had already played a huge part in the mahi taking place on the maunga. Working together with ZIP, Manaaki Whenua and the Taranaki Mounga, a plan was formed to remove possums from the National Park, farmland and a small township, ensuring the community was included to get the mahi underway. That plan was presented to Predator Free 2050 Limited – who then came on board with funding.
Workshops were held and possum studies completed to gather information on the actual number of possums in the area. Initially around a dozen staff were involved, but over the three years the project has been active, the team peaked at 30 – 40 dedicated individuals. Specialised local aerial and ground control experts were contracted to put the plan into action, with EPRO & Hoegh Hunting signed on to get things underway.
Speaking with Taranaki Regional Council Environment Services Manager Steve Ellis about the early days of the project, he explained how the community has been the key to success. “It was really heartening to see the community embracing the idea of eradication and the goal of zero possums.
“That commitment has been amazing and they have been doing their part, contacting us if they see a possum or even a potential possum, and providing feedback into the programme. It shows how much the NZ community is invested in the Predator Free mission.”
Working alongside local iwi and hapū was also an essential part of the project’s success. Building on the strong connections the Taranaki Mounga have with hapū, the project was able to communicate the mission to mana whenua and work together to incorporate kaitiakitanga.
An electronically monitored trap in the field
In addition to a highly engaged community, the project needed more in the toolbox to get to zero. Using cameras and nearly 1300 electronically monitored traps, which report catches each morning, this still could only get the project so far. Beyond a certain point, there was a lack of data. Were they in fact at zero possums? That’s when specially trained dogs emerged as a crucial ally to sniff out even the most elusive possum.
Traditional methods of baiting were effective at the wider level, but dogs, alongside cameras, were the real gamechanger. The dogs would go out as often as the weather allowed – a slight breeze was needed to help pick up the scent. The longer there are no detections, the more certain the project can be that they have indeed achieved eradication.
The huge success of the dogs is a key learning, and has the potential to be used in the initial stages of new projects in future to confirm possum numbers. “While we need new tools to help us get to Predator Free 2050, we also need to invest in training more dogs and handlers,” Steve says.
Further challenges emerged with the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, impacting the team’s ability to get out in the field. But this didn’t stop the mahi, with the team taking the opportunity to keep learning.
Usually, a possum would be detected and then removed as soon as possible, but with pest management yet to be classified as an essential service, the possums had time to move around. This meant possums that had already been collared to inform the team of their movement created more data to show just how far they were travelling or not travelling, given their reduced numbers. These lessons allowed the project to target their control at low levels once restrictions were lifted.
Read more about individual predators, including possum behaviour research through the MBIE-funded programme ‘Eradication science’.
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Even for people that have been involved in pest control their entire lives, being a part of New Zealand’s “Apollo Project” striving to get to zero predators and doing something that no one else in the world has done before has been a true motivator for everyone working on the project. The entire community is now emotionally and physically invested in the project, building a legacy for future generations to defend the mahi of their predecessors.
Programme Lead Sam Haultain says: “It’s doable, we can do it; we have to be strategic and it has to be run by everybody. Without landowners and community, we won’t get to Predator Free 2050, it has to involve the entire community.”
Sam has also spoken to news agency Stuff earlier this week about the high level of community engagement and “hugely positive response” to assist with initiatives on the ground.
The team know how important this milestone is and the significance of being one of the first projects to reach their goal. The next phase of the project is to hold the possum count at zero while expanding the possum-free zone. Successfully doing this is not just critical for Taranaki, but to prove it can be done for the entire Predator Free mission.