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Wild Animals

New Zealand Announces Ambitious Plan to Kill Millions of Weasels, Possums, Rats and Feral Cats

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Alice Reece/Getty

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced an ambitious plan in July that’s taken until now to really gather traction, simply because of how … zealous it is. (I’m not apologizing for that pun.)

“Predator Free New Zealand 2050” is a plan to kill the millions of rats, stoats (short-tailed weasels), possums and feral cats inhabiting the 103,000 square miles of the island over the next 34 years.

It’s part of an effort to save New Zealand’s indigenous population of flightless birds, though the real question isn’t the motivation behind the plan, it’s more about whether or not the government will be able to pull it off.

“It’s like back in the 1950s, when the United States government decided they wanted to land somebody on the moon,” James Russell, a conservation biologist at the University of Auckland who’s involved with the initiative, told Vice. “They didn’t actually know what the station would look like, but they were like, ‘We’re going to do it.’ We just need to work out how.”

Flightless birds like the kakapo are ill-adapted to the challenges of swift land-based predators — they evolved being able to hide from flying predators like eagles, but are facing massive depopulation because of the aforementioned land predators. New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki told Vice that there about 160 kakapo in total.

Cats and rats were the first invasive predators to arrive in New Zealand, introduced in the late 1700s by James Cook. Possums were imported from Australia in 1837 to establish an industry trading in their fur, and stoats arrived from the U.K. 50-60 years later. (Stoats, ironically, were brought in to control the island’s rabbit overpopulation problem.) Researchers primarily blame this group of predators — along with you know, humans, who hunted the birds for eggs and feathers — for the precipitous drop in the island’s bird population.

The government plans to augment the same tools it’s used for decades, like traps, fences and poisons though Toki says the full implementation of the plan will involve some kind of “blue-sky technology,” though unfortunately, no one has any idea what that might be.

If there’s one thing that New Zealand can point to, though, it’s a modest history of eradicating species from smaller islands. In 1901, they set about destroying the entire cat population of the 371-acre-long Stephens Island with lighthouse keepers armed with shotguns, and by 1925, they had been successful — though not in time to save the flightless Lyall’s wren, which had been the point of the entire operation.

The country has been successful in removing all cats, hedgehogs, possums, wallabies, rabbits, rodents, and weasels from two joined islands, Rangitoto and Motutapu (both uninhabited by humans), located next to the country’s largest city, Auckland. Also, officials believe they’ve freed the Antipodes islands (also uninhabited) of mice, which eat seabird chicks and eggs.

The vast majority of New Zealanders (99 percent as of 2014) support the idea of predator control, though arguments begin once the plan gets down to the details. A hunters group, the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association, supports the plan but objects to the plan of using a poison, 1080, because it can indiscriminately kill other species, including the ones the plan is trying to save.

Then there’s the math: One study found that the plan would cost $9 billion over 50 years. The government’s initial pledge to the program was $28 million over the next four years, and $7 million per year after that. And it’s pledged to give $1 for every $2 spent by industry partners, which means a large chunk of the budget for the program is expected to come from corporate sources.

The bottom line is that the whole thing is still in the planning phases, so expect more details to arrive. But right now, the reality seems to be that New Zealand has a very good idea of what it wants and needs to do and only a slightly firm grasp on how it’s going to do that.