For such a small country, New Zealand packs a poisonous punch. Its Department of Conservation (DoC) has a toolbox full of chemical weapons and is willing and able to use them. Last year alone saw aerial broadcasting of 800+ tonnes of toxic bait across an estimated 700,000 HAs of its native forest ecosystems (including lakes and rivers) in a campaign against rats dubbed the Battle for the Birds. The poison used was 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate), which kills by interrupting cellular respiration and affects all life forms requiring oxygen. The extreme toxicity and agonising mode of action has sparked much controversy about the inhumanity of using such a poison. There is also no known antidote and in the opinion of many 1080 should have been banned outright years ago. In New Zealand, it has been used for over 60 years to control introduced species such as rabbits, possums and rats.
Poisons are a booming business, especially for the “treatment” of rats on islands. In this instance, the poison is brodifacoum a second-generation anticoagulant used for island eradications. The method of aerial application is like “blitzkrieg”, but lack of accuracy and by kill risk means that these operations can impact, as is often witnessed, on sea mammals, fish and birds.
Brodifacoum is also persistent and bioaccumulative.
The New Zealand state-owned enterprise, Animal Control Products imports as much as 90% of the world’s supply of pure manufactured 1080 annually from the United State’s Tull Chemical Company (the sole manufacturer). This is then processed into various baits. But New Zealand’s pest control industry is not all about spreading bait from helicopters or ground-based operations in its own ecosystem, it is also about export opportunities. Animal Control Products has found a niche market for selling New Zealand expertise and products for pest control solutions and island restorations. It is a lucrative sideline for this government. New Zealand provides the skill to kill, marketing its expertise and branding, and proudly presiding over island eradications.
But does the world need such a thing as island eradications and ecosystem restorations? And if we are to believe the world does need such drastic measures, the question needs to asked. Are poisons really working? The respected science journal, Nature, reported in 2012 that “Killing rats is killing birds”. Canada and the United States are planning to restrict the use of blood-thinning rat poisons, such as brodifacoum.
The disastrous eradication of Alaska’s Rat Island used 42 tonnes of brodifacoum. This resulted in the demise of 420 birds including 46 bald eagles that tragically came to dine on rat. One would hope that the island eradication industry would think twice about using poisons that have far reaching environmental implications. Rats will go wherever we go. But still, aerial poisoning of islands is heralded as the “final solution” to the problem of rats. This way of looking at island conservation as a poisoning opportunity was born in New Zealand.
By-kill or secondary poisoning is a big problem for birds of prey and insectivores where rat poisons are used. There is also the risk of sub-lethal poisoning. New Zealand’s endangered rock wren lives in alpine regions. Following last year’s aerial-1080 drop, 26 monitored birds disappeared. It was the first aerial-1080 drop in alpine country and against DoC’s own protocol. Official statements such as “these birds are insectivores and are too small to eat the baits” do not help DoC’s reputation. This kind of reaction displays a bureaucratic level of protection for the poison instead of the natives. The habitat of any insectivorous bird when exposed to a known insecticide such as 1080 will potentially suffer from the reduced population of insects and other invertebrates. This puts them at risk not only of secondary poisoning but starvation, and may encourage them to try novel foods.
In a review of DoC’s science supporting poison operations, Dr Quinn Whiting O-Keefe stated that “The positive effects claimed by DoC for New Zealand’s biodiversity simply have not been demonstrated.” He went on to point out that “The claims are based almost entirely on internally generated anecdotes and poorly designed research that often fails to demonstrate what DoC claims it shows. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that some native species are harmed by the indiscriminate distribution of food laced with a universal toxin into our native forest ecosystems.”
With the lack of independent or credible research in New Zealand, hope is pinned on international efforts. In a study of more than 130 dead birds of prey found in and around Vancouver, Canada, “virtually 100%” of the owls and a large proportion of the hawks had residues of at least one second-generation anticoagulant rodenticide in their livers. Other birds can also be poisoned if insects eat the rat bait and the birds then eat the insects. Wishful thinkers in New Zealand would have us believe that little birds don’t go for bait but this is not true. In a test, John Elliott, an ecotoxicologist at Environment Canada put sparrows in a cage with rat-bait pellets. “They went straight for the bait,” he says.
New Zealand’s valuable wildlife is being cruelly wasted by indiscriminate use of 1080 and other poisons. No independent or credible study, or testing of birds has been carried out during 60 years of aerial application in New Zealand’s forest ecosystems. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that aerial-1080 is killing large numbers of native animals, including birds, insects and other invertebrates, and our only native mammal, the bat. Introduced species are not being studied, instead they are demonized in a propaganda war against exotic species. It is an unsustainable regime that is costly and has gone on far too long.
Is it any wonder that New Zealand is fast losing its native species? The international scientific community needs to know that New Zealand’s conservation policy is not working. The problem is one of bureaucracy and it appears that it’s the State that is the rogue.