Image for The Lord Howe Island Rat Eradication Programme


Australians to be Guinea Pigs for a Kiwi Folly

Lord Howe Island is a small and isolated volcanic remnant about 600 kilometres east of New South Wales. It is to be the site of another Kiwi designed island eradication. This time the purpose is twofold. Firstly to address a crisis of threats to native wildlife by invasive pest species like rats and secondly, as a trial run of an eradication programme on an inhabited island before starting on more ambitious eradications such as “Predator Free New Zealand”, a programme to eradicate invasive species on New Zealand’s mainland.

Though mice have been on Lord Howe since the 1860’s, and rats only since 1918, many of the birds have been made extinct by human activity. These include the white gallinule and the red crowned parakeet, which was killed out by settlers protecting their gardens. Rats have had an impact on smaller bird species as well as some insects and plants. Some extinctions are due to rats, but the birds are gone, and no amount of breast beating will change that. While the presence of rats is undesirable, the massive dislocation to an island’s ecology by dumping tonnes of the deadly rat poison, brodifacoum, is likely to be more harmful than accepting the continued presence of rats. Scientists have claimed that the successful eradication of rodents is technically feasible on Lord Howe. On the basis of the eradication industry’s track record to date, failure is possibly even more likely.

Because of its unique plants and wildlife, science has had an influence in Lord Howe’s governance. In 1878, the island was declared a Forest Reserve and initially day to day governance was handled by an “administrator” From the 1890’s, three important scientific institutions have had a relationship with the island and, one presumes, an influence on its administration. They are the Australian Museum, the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens and the Kew Gardens in London. Governance was taken over by a Sydney based three-man board in 1913. Later amendments have increased the board to seven members, of which four are locally elected. All land remains Crown land, with various forms of lease and length of tenure being the only basis of occupancy available to the islanders. Questions regarding land holding and governance remain an issue with the islanders. Since a 1981 revision of the island’s status, roughly 70% of it has become National Park. The island has a permanent population of just under 400 people and tourist numbers can double that.

The final piece in the jigsaw of Lord Howe’s governance was put in place with 1982 inscription by UNESCO of the island as a site of global significance. Although the inscription ties Australia to various international obligations, those would not appear to require the mass poisoning of an island.

There are quite a few problems to overcome with island rodent eradications, the first being the terrain. In the case of Lord Howe, it is difficult but not insurmountable. One side of the highest point, Mount Gower, is virtually a cliff plunging from the summit to the sea which will result in a lot of brodifacoum ending up in the water. Another problem is human habitation, with houses, tourist facilities and general amenities. This could not be addressed by aerial bait spreading, but will require hand laid baits and bait stations. To work, it will require a high degree of local co-operation and policing to ensure success. As the island has for a long time supported a community that has had livestock and chickens, these will all have to be destroyed or taken to the mainland.

A possible initial consequence of the eradication programme could be a plague of mice. Mice have a higher LD50 (tolerance) to brodifacoum than rats, and generally inhabit smaller, harder to reach spaces. A population of surviving mice, freed from competition by rats, would explode as has been seen at some of the mainland island eradications in New Zealand.

Sea birds will also be vulnerable

For the native creatures that rodent eradication is supposed to protect, aerial brodifacoum is a crude and destructive weapon – it kills all birds and other native wildlife just as effectively as it kills rats. It is an area where the advisors for the eradication, New Zealand’s Island Eradication Advisory Group (IEAG) have a history of minimising non-target risk and covering up or failing to monitor failures such as at Rat Island in the Aleutians. It seems there will be a programme to “ark” some of the wood hen population, which while good in intent also means that they acknowledge the population outside the protected pens will be lost, and those saved will be of a diminished gene pool. We think of the anti-coagulant brodifacoum as affecting only animals and birds with a vascular system, and not insects. However, a programme to eradicate rats from Fregate Island in the Seychelles to protect rare snails (again with New Zealand advisors) backfired badly. Snails were severely affected, and it appears one species actually became extinct as a result of the poisoning. In the case of Lord Howe, the most endangered species is the flax snail – it will be put at risk of extinction. As well, there are many other birds and insects on the island that will be affected, but as no-one has fully investigated it - and we don’t really know what damage will be done – it is just another case of poisoners flying blind.

Sea birds that come to nest on the island will also be vulnerable, as Australia itself has experienced at Macquarie Island. There New Zealand advisors from the IEAG and New Zealand operators were engaged and commenced poisoning in 2010 to rid the island of rabbits, rats and mice. Soon poisoned seabirds were being washed up on the Auckland Islands, far to the east. The then Federal Minister of Conservation Peter Garret was so concerned he halted the operation. Had it not been for the destruction to the land by rabbits, it is possible the operation may have ended there, but in the end it was resumed a year later, but with further mitigation measures in place to reduce by-kill of sea birds. Sea mammal populations were not closely monitored before and after poisoning. Though declines in breeding success were noted, they were attributed to the flavour of the month excuse – climate change. Nothing to do with brodifacoum of course. We never think of plants being affected by rat poison, but other than the same lame excuse of climate change, no other explanation is offered for the massive (90%) decline of the cushion plant azorella.

Brodifacoum is stable in water and is lethal to just about all aquatic life. From the fish to the dolphins, penguins and seals that feed on them. It will also affect people, a problem that US based Island Watch Conservation Science discovered from material obtained from US Fish and Wildlife Service under a freedom of information request. They found that fish taken from round Wake Island, site of an unsuccessful eradication programme, were unfit for human consumption for around 942 days (nearly three years) after the brodifacoum poisoning. . This has considerable implications to the oceans round Lord Howe which are part of the Lord Howe Commonwealth Marine Reserve. It is a large area of ocean set aside for the protection of creatures ranging from hump-backed whales and black cod to the world’s most southern coral reef ecosystem. That brodifacoum will end up in the sea is unavoidable, as baiting has to go right to the ocean’s edge to reach every bit of rodent habitat. At an aerial rat eradication programme on Palmyra, a US atoll south of Hawaii, up to 20% of field bait density of baits ended up in the water for up to seven metres offshore. The situation would be much worse under the cliffs of Mount Gower where baits would tumble down into the sea. Dead fish floating in the water were collected from the sea round Palmyra and tested positive for brodifacoum poisoning.

To an island economy largely based on tourism, dead fish floating in the sea, restaurants unable to serve local fish and marine delicacies for nearly three years would be a disaster. It would have a lasting impact on an island economy. On an inhabited island, disasters cannot be hidden away, and any marine animal deaths would feature in mainland news. The consequences for the islanders could be severe.

As island eradications are very costly exercises, the question of the likelihood of success has to be considered. Here the lessons of campaigns like Wake Island (where the fish remain dangerous for human consumption) cannot be ignored. There are still rats on Wake island ! Even on small, simple, uninhabited islands that have no difficult land forms or forests, islands like Henderson Island in the Pacific south of Pitcairn, rats still remain after another botched eradication. The list goes on. Desechio off Puerto Rica, another failure. Some, like Birnie in the Kiribati group have had to be poisoned twice before they finally got rid of rats. The second effort on the Birnie rats was by the well-equipped Aquila Expedition, a shipboard party including two helicopters that shipped out from the US on a specially converted ship in 2011. To achieve its purpose, special helicopter storage and a large helicopter pad and loading area had been built as well as cargo space for tonnes of poison baits. The expedition’s brief was to poison Enderbury and repeat the poisoning at Birnie. It was then to poison the remote Henderson Island, south of Pitcairn. They only succeeded at Birnie. A success rate of only 33% ! On this basis, and other failures, the chances of success at Lord Howe can be no better than 50% if that. I further understand Peter McClelland, the New Zealand Department of Conservation officer managing the Lord Howe eradication, is on record as having doubts about the likelihood of success. At this point, considering the collateral damage to endemic wildlife and islander livelihoods, you would really have to question the wisdom of proceeding at all.

What we have to do is ask what really drives programmes like the Lord Howe eradication. I think the Australian physicist who spent a lot of his working life on Macquarie and observed the fiasco of that operation pretty well got it right:

“There are issues about the unholy alliance between environmental scientists (ecologists) on the government payroll and environmental activists and lobby groups acting politically. There are issues about the way in which scientists continue to produce those environmental “threats” which have proven so successful in maintaining projects’ funding.”

Other than the fact he overlooked academics and academic institutions, it seems a complete summation, because the funding for projects like Lord Howe is many millions of dollars; it has become big business.

The environmental “threat” that is being used as the reason to poison Lord Howe can be found in the following:- We can see from Appendix A, Table A1 that the only listed endangered species on Lord Howe that is possibly at risk from rats is the flax snail! We know from the experience of Fregate Island that it was the snail they were trying to protect from rats that became extinct following the poisoning operation. As the snails have co-existed with the rats for nearly a century, and with mice for nearly 150 years, it would seem the greatest risk to the snails is not the rats, but the eradication programme supposedly to save them from rats.
By taking steps to specifically protect the snails, by way of trapping or other non-invasive methods, Australia would probably better meet its obligations to the island’s UNESCO “global significance” status ;  in fact, more so than poisoning it with brodifacoum!

At an anticipated cost of A$9 million, the Lord Howe eradication has all the hallmarks of yet another destructive white elephant, its promotion driven by a desire to eliminate what are seen as alien life forms. A desire to turn back the clock to a supposedly pure world. It is this form of environmental activism that is utilised as “crisis marketing” by a cynical state science and poisoning industry. It is a big money business which does not factor in the collateral damage to ecosystems or the personal costs to the islanders and their industries. Whatever happens,  in the world of conservation spin, if the Lord Howe poisoning goes ahead it will be hailed a success by New Zealand’s conservation bosses who will use it to promote poisoning on an inhabited New Zealand.

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.

• Bill Benfield, in Comments … Island eradications are a very profitable activity. They are supported by environmental impact reports that are master pieces of smoke and mirror science. As pre and post operation monitoring is either non-existent or superficial, then even the failures can be hailed as successes as Barry Baxter so eloquently demonstrates.

• Richard Prosser MP
Spokesperson for Primary Industries
4 JUNE 2015


Aucklanders should be concerned about a planned 1080 poison drop in the Hunua Ranges, their catchment for drinking water, says New Zealand First.

“Nearly 50,000 kilos of 1080 poison baits will be dropped over the very heart of the Queen City’s largest drinking water catchment and reservoir area,” says Outdoor Recreation and Primary Industries Spokesperson Richard Prosser.

“Watercare Services, which runs Auckland’s water has stringent protocols in place, but cannot stop the drop which is part of Auckland Council’s pest control programme.

“The concern for Auckland is that half the Hunua holding dams will be shut off each time to protect the water supply. This will happen for as long as it takes to get clear test results back to ensure the city’s water supply hasn’t been inadvertently poisoned.

“If anything goes wrong, Auckland’s entire water supply surety may be endangered.

“The Auckland Council says the amount of 1080 used will only be about a teaspoon per hectare, yet hypothetically that’s still enough to kill roughly 340,000 people. No-one believes the operation could go wrong to anywhere near that degree, but it does illustrate just how potentially dangerous this stuff is.

“More concerning are the potential sub-lethal health effects which are known to be serious but not yet fully studied.

“New Zealand First is repeating our call for an immediate moratorium on the use of aerial 1080, and investment in alternative methods and research, until 1080 can be proven to be both necessary and safe – which it very probably can’t,” said Mr Prosser.

Primary Industry spokesman Richard Prosser in General Debate yesterday afternoon ..

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