Throughout human history we have vilified and sought to destroy predators which attack and kill our kind. But in a striking reversal of hundreds of thousands of years of human behaviour, we now acknowledge that our predators themselves are threatened, and in 2007 we afforded full protection for the great white shark, the only man-eater wild in New Zealand territory.
However this sea-change is only symptomatic of a broader shift in attitudes to conservation. Driven by the unbridled expansion of human population and the consequent destruction of the natural environment, we have witnessed the collapse of numerous significant forests, wetlands, oceans and alpine zones, and with them the species that depend on those habitats. Now, as the spectre of 2ºC warming looms, a quarter of the species on the planet face annihilation. Never has the conservation mandate been so urgent.
In response, we are using increasingly aggressive methods to prevent the course of decline. We uproot entire populations of birds and airlift them to offshore islands where they are safe from introduced predators—a method we might use to rescue diplomats from war-zones, not flightless wrens from the jaws of a stoat. Similarly we toss potent poison from planes, raining it down through national parks, a necessary evil to keep invaders in check. We bait and trap, catch and kill, slaughtering thousands of hapless stoats, rats and possums. We use gene warfare, fertility-busting paste and all manner of hideous devices to exterminate some species, in order to save others.
Taking this course of active conservation ultimately attracts accusations of “playing God”. The selective logic by which we label endemic species as worthy of protection and introduced species as filthy vermin to slaughter probably has animal rights implications, as do the methods of control, and sodium monofluoroacetate, or 1080, is one of the most controversial. Yet 1080 has also saved dozens of species from extinction. Incidentally, we have played God before, when we introduced possums, rabbits and stoats in the first place. Killing some animals to save others along boundaries of primitive dispersal (and at enormous cost) seems a little bizarre, but letting a disaster of our own making run its course is not an option either. Most New Zealanders are resigned to these dualities—we kill to protect, and even protect those predators that kill us—in order to conserve a unique environment that we cherish.
In this issue we delve into these paradoxes of New Zealand conservation, debunk some of the myths that have plagued 1080 poison and explore the mysteries of great white sharks, our most fearsome predator. We also look at rock wrens, which are being chased uphill by stoats and climate change, and the DNA of kelp which reveals traces of ancient climate change. There are answers in some of the most unexpected places.