Boom time for New Zealand’s rats as lockdown gives them free rein in cities
With pest controllers having been in lockdown or limited service and a population surge last year, the vermin are free to wreak havoc in populated areas, and on native wildlife.
Surrounded by ancient rimu trees and the sound of chirping pīwakawaka, Tame Malcolm brings in his second rat of the day from the dense undergrowth of his Auckland backyard. That’s four pests for his tally today – with only a few hundred thousand or so to go.
“It’s the first time my whānau [family] have got to see me doing pest control. I’ve been teaching the whānau that we do this to protect the birds,” says Malcolm, director of Māori-oriented biosecurity business Puna Consultants.
For Māori, many of these threatened birds are classed as taonga; a natural treasure with special significance to the culture. “These taonga species are part of our whakapapa [genealogical ties]. They helped protect our tūpuna [ancestors] so we have a duty to help them.”
As the autumn leaves fall and crackle, Malcolm would usually be out assisting iwi [tribes] around the country with urgent pest control measures, with a particular focus on exterminating rats as the winter months loom.
Now, like every other New Zealander, Malcolm is stuck at home in the third week of level-four lockdown. Pest control has been deemed a non-essential service by the government; a decision experts say is putting New Zealand’s most vulnerable wildlife at risk, as the number of rats, mice and stoats surges.
The timing couldn’t be better for New Zealand’s vermin. They’re coming off 2019’s “mega mast” year, which means bountiful supplies of seed allowed their populations to flourish. Now, with vital pest control efforts halted, there are growing public health concerns as vermin colonise urban areas unchallenged.
It also makes the government’s goal to wipe out all pests by 2050 increasingly elusive. The ambitious project aims to restore the country to its pre-human state, a time before introduced pests were able to wreak havoc on its natural biodiversity.
Arriving as hitchhikers on settler boats from the 13th century onwards, invasive animals such as rats made easy work of vulnerable bird populations, including the iconic flightless Kiwi which once numbered in the many millions but today languishes below 70,000.
Even with the Department of Conservation’s extensive trapping, baiting, and aerial poison drops, 68,000 native birds fall victim to invasive predators every day. As most of these species are endemic to New Zealand, a population wipe-out would mean complete extinction.