Track New Zealand’s Bid to Take Back Nature

K. Peek,  Scientific American,  2022.

A thousand years ago the islands that today form New Zealand were riotously wild. Birds, reptiles and invertebrates flourished in lush forests hundreds of miles from any other landmass. Māori settlers in the 1200s brought Polynesian rats for food, and together the humans and the rodents began to shift the ecological balance. Native species started to go extinct. Enter European ships, bearing new carnivores: more aggressive rat species, plus mice, stoats, and others. These ground-based predators hunted differently from the falcons and other aerial threats New Zealand wildlife had evolved with. Native birds that slept in burrows made easy prey for prowling mammals. Invasive predator populations exploded, devastating native wildlife. But in the past 60 years humans have intervened to help old New Zealand ecosystems claw their way back. First, a single five-acre (two-hectare) islet called Maria Island (Ruapuke in Māori) was declared rat-free by ecologists in 1964, five years after volunteers set poisoned bait. It was a special case. The white-faced storm petrels at risk there were especially charismatic—they appear to walk on water—and easily gained public support. The ample baiting effort also got particularly lucky with its placement, ecologists say. Nevertheless, the serendipitous success kicked off decades of eradication efforts.

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