Image for NZ: A programme to poison a nation

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Since the mid 1950’s, when New Zealand started aerial poisoning to rid the land of invasive mammals, there has been a steady decline in its native wildlife which the poisoning was supposed to advantage.

In the past 20 years, the decline has become dramatic to the point that people who visit the forests note and comment on it. As it is the nation’s conservation agencies who do the poisoning supposedly to protect the forests and birds, they must blame the decline on something other than their own activities – i.e. “pest” and “predators”. It is against the backdrop of an escalating decline despite poisoning, that increasing shrill claims are made against non-natives as the cause. “pfnz” as it is titled is the product of this misdirected exotiphobia.

It was in odd circumstances that we became aware of the existence of “pfnz” when in late November 2012, a friend received by Email an unusual and out-of-the-blue sales pitch, “a short history of pfnz” and a covering note.

It was the blueprint for an extraordinary programme to poison a whole nation and “eliminate” all pests (including cats) based on a new conservation model of a public / private partnership.  Its originators wrote that they had been deliberately flying below the radar for around five years. Looking back, there had been signs, but we had never recognised them.

Its originators were Les Kelly, a New Zealander who had been working for around 25 years in the Australian mining industry, and Paul Jansen, a former DoC manager who had been involved with kakapo recovery programmes. The two had gone tramping through the New Zealand bush for several months, and Kelly was shocked to find that what he had seen twenty-five years ago as the world’s greatest aviary was now almost silent. In a newspaper interview, Kelly did say that he thought it could have been 1080, but subsequently adopted the official view that the cause was predation of birds by rats and stoats as well as by vegetarian possum.

Over the five years of discreet activity they had gathered together some “friends” which included deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, who, it seems, facilitated an invitation to address the National Party’s (conservative) “blue green” forum at Taupo. There followed further meetings with the then Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith (later Minister for Conservation), and other MP’s.

Kelly seems to have been thoroughly involved in pursuing his mission, recruiting and networking to build up a support base from the movers and shakers in the corporate conservation sector. Kelly in his Email describes pfnz supporters as “gold standard”. They include a considerable group from the business world such as Don Huse, a professional company director and trustee of the fenced “sanctuary” Zealandia, philanthropist businessman Gareth Morgan, William Rolleston of Federated Farmers and Rick Boven of Stakeholder Strategies Ltd.

Their biggest coup was enlisting physicist Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, a trustee of the Zealandia sanctuary who was at the time a very sick man close to death. Callaghan seems to have embraced the concept and added the authority of his position to the programme. It was also Callaghan who probably made the most accurate partial assessment of pfnz when he called it “this crazy idea of getting rid of these animals for good from the (New Zealand) mainland was worth a go as it just might work”. To which we could add that on the basis of high failure rate for the smaller island eradications, it is more likely it just might not!

With the push of Callaghan’s involvement the whole thing seemed to gather pace. In Feburary 2012,  Forest & Bird organised and sponsored a meeting at Ruapehu of scientists who, smelling enhanced career opportunities, concurred with Callaghan’s conclusions. A further meeting was held in Gisborne, chaired by Gareth Morgan and reported in the Gisborne Herald on 11/6/12. There has also been a scoping document prepared by Landcare Research and DoC in May, 2012. This was called “pest free new zealand” and added as predators vegetarian deer chamois and tahr; in effect all non-native wildlife not behind wire for the purposes of farming are “pests” or predators to be eradicated.

A conservation management model like New Zealand’s, which is in denial of the origins and evolution of its environment, needs a lot of money. After all, it is fighting nature, and nature will keep trying to come back. For this reason, embracing corporate funding is almost necessary to maintain an unworkable programme and, in this context, pfnz would seem like a manna from heaven concept to the nation’s conservation managers. The DoC and Landcare Research scoping paper by Andrea Byrom and Susan Timmins estimates the costs for the whole project to be around $27 billion spread over 40 to 50 years. If they can find that much money, it will be a very considerable cash injection into a science and poisons industry gravy train!

Never mention ponson!

“pfnz” is now well entrenched as a concept and structure complete with a trust comprising notable figures from both the public and private conservation industry. Among them are Rob Fenwick, the chairman of the government science provider, Landcare Research, Kevin O’Connor of DoC, economist/businessman Gareth Morgan, William McCook of OSPRI, the former Animal Health Board,  Fran Wilde, chair of Greater Wellington Regional Council,  Charles Daugherty of the Ecology Department of Victoria University and several others.

Until recently it was still being low keyed in its public profile and certainly evasive on eradication methods with airy claims of “blue sky” technology and self re-setting traps.

Never mention poison!

What is missing in the new trust are the originators of pfnz. We know that Jansen has had a job as a special adviser to the Minister of Conservation, but Kelly seems to have dropped out of the picture. As pfnz is potentially one of the world’s greatest gravy trains, it invites the question why. One clue to his fate is on a website he set up, http://www.predatorfreenz.com/ ; where he states his opposition to aerial 1080. As aerial 1080 is the honey pot in New Zealand’s conservation, his presence would probably not have rested easily with the rest of the trust.

There are currently several projects in progress with all the hallmarks of pfnz involvement; they include trust member Gareth Morgan’s “million dollar mouse” project to aerially spread tonnes of mouse sized baits of brodifacoum rat poison on the sub-Antarctic Antipodes Island. Another is a public-private partnership with wealthy philanthropists, Neil and Annette Plowman, titled “project Janszoon”, for a 30 year programme of aerial poisoning with 1080 and aerial weed spraying to supposedly return the Abel Tasman National Park to the state it was in when Tasman called in 1642.

Stewart Island will be the first mainland site to have total eradication. For Stewart Island, the methods proposed are vague, but on the information available it seems it will have will have aerial drops of the environmentally persistent brodifacoum rat poison, the same as was done on the nearby Muttonbird (Titi) Islands.

All information to date on the conduct of the pfnz campaign is couched in military terms, with operations starting from the south and spreading north in sweeps over the nation. It seems reminiscent of Captain Yerex’s futile campaigns against deer in the 1930s. Yerex’s campaign failed because he could not stop animals going back through the lines and into the freshly “cleared’ areas. In a radio interview on the morning programme of Radio New Zealand shortly before his death Paul Callaghan expounded his “vision” of how pfnz would work.

The plan, he claimed, would be to set up fenced protected islands, almost arks which had been cleansed of “pests”. Here collections of “iconic” native birds would then be kept, without the flighted ones flying out – hopefully. At this point, the pfnz juggernaut would proceed from the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North over the period of some years, destroying every non-native creature not held behind wire for the purposes of agriculture.

At this point there seems to be a tacit admission that every native species not protected in a fenced sanctuary will also have been destroyed. At the end of the campaign the doors of the sanctuaries will be opened and New Zealand’s “iconic” native birds can re-populate, albeit with a reduced gene pool; a poisoned land devoid of ecosystems.

Such a lunatic scheme ...

What I find amazing about all this is that supposedly sane, allegedly clever people can buy into such a lunatic scheme. Not only will it cost around $27 billion and generate a groundswell of public opposition, but on the basis of the many failures of island eradications on simple uninhabited islands like Birnie in the Kiribatis, Henderson south of Pitcairn and Desechio (Puerto Rica), the prospects for the success of pfnz look hopeless.
   
So far all the activity has been round the edges and pfnz has not yet moved onto large populated areas. Despite a Dominion Post of 24/3/13 three page special on Les Kelly and pfnz, it does not seem to have caused any major public concern so far. However, the paper article did see public opposition as a likely event, primarily they thought from suburbanites, organic lifestylers and hippies. An even more myopic view is expressed in a thesis by a master’s student under the supervision of Island Eradication proponent, James Russell.

It offers the opinion that opposition will be only from a small group of anti-1080 activists. James Russell also stated that pfnz will require the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (Dominion Post 20/3/13). This ignores the fact that, once such a large and potentially disruptive programme gets underway, it could well create considerable antipathy. Already we have seen pfnz trustee Gareth Morgan waging war on cat ownership, so ensuring that the nation’s cat lovers will not support anything he advocates.

It is likely that, as the wider population begin to understand the extent and the disruption of pfnz and the consequences for them, there will be further controversy. It will only take a few pictures of innocent pet dogs and other animals suffering the excruciating deaths of 1080 poisoning for any support to swing away from the programme. Already there is considerable disquiet amongst many rural dwellers about current DoC and Tb Free “pest” control and use of toxins.

When the size and magnitude of a programme like pfnz, the policing of pest control, and the access that will be required to be given to rural properties, it is a likely that recalcitrant element will arise which will seek to actively work against pfnz. They could well successfully undermine it and ensure its failure. City dwellers, who have yet to experience the heavy-handed approach of the poisoners and their contractors, are more likely to be sucked in to pfnz, as they do not understand the issues felt by rural dwellers. They will have it brought home to them when their suburban gardens become the front line in the war against “pests”.

For pfnz to succeed, every rat in every roof, down every drain, in every house, every garden shed in every town in New Zealand will have to be eradicated. To achieve that level of intrusion into the lives of every family in the country it is likely to require an almost police state right of entry. Entry will be needed for trapping and poisoning. There will also be monitoring inspection to determine if eradication has been achieved. To suggest that the public of New Zealand will be as welcoming as pfnz for what many will see as an insane programme is naïve, especially as the first consequence of the programme that the public is likely to see as the campaign gets going will be a plague of mice. Rats and mice compete for the same food sources. Rats also are predators of mice, but mice have a far greater tolerance to most rat poisons and are likely to survive the campaign. Without competition from other species there will be nothing to limit their numbers.

If pfnz were to go ahead, it is possible that, with the massive resources deployed, slow breeding possum could be eradicated from New Zealand. Rats and stoats are another matter due to their high natural fertility and ability to increase their breeding rate to compensate for control activities. To get the last rat or the last stoat may be possible, but it can be quite a challenge as DoC demonstrated when they spent $600,000 to eliminate a single stoat on Kapiti Island. Transfer that to the mainland, and you can get some idea of the magnitude of the task.

Rats are ubiquitous. Wherever humans are, all over the world, there are rats. Even the first Maori settlers brought rats. If we eliminate rats, how do we prevent re-infestation?

Tighter border controls; monitoring every vessel right down to fishing boats that arrive at these shores. This ignores “irregular” arrivals”, say a foreign fishing boat wrecking in a storm and rats getting ashore, if indeed when this happens, the whole $27 billion dollar exercise will be for nought.

In the later part of 2014 “pfnz” went public with big promotions and opinion pieces in the major dailies, even articles in praise of Callaghan and the Royal Society from Rod Oram, the financial correspondent in the Sunday Star Times of 30/11/14. There was also an extremely lop-sided television presentation that can be seen on http://www.tv3.co.nz/tabid/3692/MCat/3304/Default.aspx featuring a Department of Conservation officer extolling the necessity of aerial 1080 to save endangered birds and wildlife.

Not only has pfnz gone public, but it is now spawning other public/private models, often as funding fronts to capture “significant donors” – corporates or celebratory suckers!

Next Foundation is made up of senior figures from New Zealand education and industry, and includes the almost ubiquitous Rob Fenwick. Among their goals, they claim: “The Next Foundation has been established with a vision “to create a legacy of environmental and educational excellence for the benefit of future generations of New Zealanders”.

The Next Foundation have joined with DoC and father and son businessmen, Gareth and Sam Morgan to form ZIP Ltd whose aim is “zero invasive predators”.

All this is being accompanied by a more intensive publicity campaign, such as a “feature” article in the New Yorker of 22 /12/14 titled “The Big Kill – New Zealand’s Crusade to Rid Itself of Mammals”; it is little more than an infomercial for New Zealand’s conservation industry. Looking at it, it seems more than just an image polishing exercise; could it also be part of a sales pitch for wider PPP (public private profiteering) eradication programmes elsewhere, such as that already planned for Lord Howe Island where New Zealanders are already involved? Certainly Norfolk Island and some Hawaiian islands could be likely targets.

“pfnz” is now on the road, and its success will not be measured by its ability to save birds, but in the money that can be directed into the science establishments, academic institutions and the whole conservation industry. In fact, as it is so unlikely to succeed, it could continue forever, a cynical enhancement of New Zealand’s existing cost plus conservation industry.

All of this ignores two simple and obvious truths. First, the likelihood of failure is so high, even on small and uninhabited islands. The 2011 “Aguila” expedition to poison three small islands only succeeded with one.

A failure rate of 66%.

For a much larger inhabited nation, success in ridding it of “predators” is just an expensive fantasy.

The other truth is the simple and obvious evidence of Stewart Island and Te Urewera National Park: where there are no aerial poisoning operations, the native bird life is in good health.

The case can certainly be made that it is not “pests” that are driving our native wildlife to extinction, but an unholy alliance of greed and zealotry.

W. F. (Bill) Benfield grew up in Christchurch New Zealand and graduated in Architecture from Auckland in 1968. He is a practising Architect and has also worked in London and the Northern Territory of Australia. He was Chairman of Action for the Environment in the late 1970s, and in that role assisted with submissions to the McCarthy Commission on Nuclear Energy and the Upper Otaki hydro development proposals. He assisted and gave evidence in the relator court action with the Attorney-General against the consents granted the Bank of New Zealand Head Office building in Wellington. In the mid 1980s, with Sue Delamare, he established a vineyard and winery in Martinborough. It was set up without irrigation, used passive frost protection and sought to minimise energy and spray use. It was awarded a Ballance Farm Environment Award for sustainability in 2005. The wines have achieved international recognition. From his family he inherited a lifelong interest in fly fishing and the conservation of nature. He is the author of “The Third Wave - Poisoning the Land” and the more recent “At War with Nature - Corporate Conservation and the Industry of Extinction”. Both published by Tross Publishing of Wellington New Zealand.

• Tony Orman, in Comments: Bill Benfield has brilliantly exposed the lunacy and waste of public money with NZ’s obsession with poisons. The government and its agencies will create a sterile, silent environment. I’ve seen 1080-ed areas which were like a morgue, deathly and devoid of bird life or any life for that matter, whereas neighbouring valleys not poisoned, were fine.