In 2012, New Zealand Geographic broke the story of a secret meeting of scientists in a lodge on the Central Plateau to evaluate the feasibility of a crazy idea. They concluded it might just work. Less than eight years later, Predator Free 2050—a mission to rid the entire country of rats, possums and mustelids—is gathering steam.
But why is this important? Isn’t it enough to leave the birds to their sanctuary islands?
One major criticism of the predator-free movement is that it involves too much nostalgia: that the quest for a prelapsarian Aotearoa is an expensive fantasy. We can’t go back to how things were. Change is one of the conditions of life on earth.
It’s true that we can’t return to the past, that the living world is always in motion. But something else is also true: that we value what’s unique, that variety is prized over uniformity, that we see a danger in the homogenisation that introduced mammals are bringing to this country. If we leave predators to it, it isn’t only birds that they’ll extinguish, but the trees those species pollinate, the insect communities they sustain. You can’t pull threads out of an ecosystem without the whole thing fraying.
The idea of Predator Free 2050 can be simplified in this way: Something is going to die. It will either be possums, mustelids, and three species of rat, or it will be most of New Zealand’s native birds and an unknown number of plants and invertebrates. You have to choose. Inaction is a choice.
The Predator Free 2050 goal declares that what evolved on this “last, loneliest, loveliest” land, as Rudyard Kipling called us, is worth keeping, and not in the open-air museums of sanctuary islands, but among us. We want rocky outcrops heaving with white-faced storm petrels, and if hitting rats on the head with a belaying pin is what it takes, that’s what it takes.
Predator Free 2050 has already proved itself a galvanising force, mobilising more than the sum of its parts—or budget. It acknowledges that something within our animal nature thrives when our neighbours are tūī and ruru and kererū and tīeke. Sanctuaries aren’t good enough. Something is lost when humans are a monoculture.
Sometimes, we just need a bold name for what’s already happening around us: a declaration. Great Barrier’s newfound Dark Sky Sanctuary status—little changed on the island in order to acquire the label—immediately birthed a couple of businesses led by locals who discovered a passion in studying the stars.
On an astronomy tour by Good Heavens, I noticed that all that was required for this form of sightseeing were beanbags, telescopes, and thermoses of tea. It was harmless as a picnic. And given that stargazing is better in winter—night falls earlier, the skies are clearer, the galactic core of the Milky Way is straight down the centre—it spreads the load of the seasons, the heavy tread of summer’s tourism.
Before that—before the Dark Sky Sanctuary name was bestowed on an island just across the horizon from home—I hadn’t realised that the moon is bright enough to cast sharp-edged shadows. Bright enough to read by. Or how many species go about their lives after dark.
Humans think of ourselves as separate from the natural world, but we aren’t. We’re part of it, our bodies perhaps more deaf and blind than those of the animals that surround us, but still attuned to greenery and complexity, to sunrise and the oncoming dusk.