With the growing threat of predation linked to climate change and tourism, New Zealand is forced to take immoderate measures to ensure the survival of its native species.
Earlier this year, I moved from Toronto to Christchurch to explore the outdoors and write. Camping in New Zealand comes guaranteed with spectacular vistas every step of the way, and the scenery on hikes can rapidly change from dense forest to stark mountain peaks. The views make the hikes worthwhile, but tourists often come to this island for a more magnificent natural spectacle: the birds. Much of New Zealand’s unique bird life is endangered and extreme efforts are being made by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to bolster their numbers.
Many of the south island’s national parks have Great Walks, which are incredibly well-maintained treks. Hikers can experience the beautiful wilderness and are often able to come into contact with an impressive variety of rare birds. The ease of access of these hikes promotes wilderness stewardship in many different types of people, not just the camping elite, and can form a pride of place and a respect for nature in the local populations as well. However, with increased tourism, Leave No Trace (LNT) camping is strictly enforced for the same reason that these breathtaking hikes are equipped with traps every twenty meters.
While habitat degradation due to logging has been a key factor in the decline of all birdlife on the island, there is a more present threat. Invasive rodents thrive where they are unchallenged, and the birds in New Zealand have not developed survival strategies to combat this plague. The DOC is working to assist the natural wildlife, but global warming is complicating these efforts.
The beech trees in the southern island have a particular response to continually warming summers. If the current summer is warmer than the previous, it creates what is called a mast year, where trees produce seeds in abundance. This overfeeds the mice and rats, which sate the stoats, and all three invasive populations explode. With this many rodents, all of whom are able to climb, birds bear the brunt of this plague. Nests of kea, the vulnerable alpine parrot, are attacked in 60% of cases. Robin and wren nest success can drop to 30%, plunging populations into dangerous levels. Faced with this dramatic plunge, the DOC was forced to take drastic measures.
In the “Battle for Our Birds”, the DOC opted to use aerial 1080 poison, a biodegradable toxin used to kill stoats and rats, over 800,000 hectares of land. There were warnings about this airdrop on different hikes, listed with dates of deployment and risk of poison for hikers. The success of the 1080 in 2014 was staggering. Bird nest success went up to 80%, and birds in the 1080 areas raised up to three times the number of chicks.
I walked one of the hikes where 1080 had been used in the previous year, and while the ethical issues of poisoning the landscape are debatable, I was able to see species that exist nowhere else on Earth. In the finite but dense wilderness of these adventures, I enjoy the stunning scenes and brief but powerful sightings of rare animal species. I drink water straight from the streams, as does everyone on this walk. But with the increase in tourism and the more frequent mast years caused by global warming, it is unclear how successful the conservation methods used today will be for the birds and trees of tomorrow. Poisoning pests on a massive scale will only do so much against the rising tide, and more efforts must be brought forth for the continued survival of these magnificent birds, this stellar wilderness.