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What's your poison? DoC's toxic shame

What's your poison? The Department of Conservation's toxic shame

Recently I walked some of the rickety tracks in the forests and coasts of beautiful Aotearoa/ New Zealand. Specifically, I tramped the Queen Charlotte Track and some of the Richmond Ranges in the Nelson area.

I saw lots of gorgeous non-indigenous wildlife, including wild goats, pigs, deer, and possums. I also enjoyed being among many of Aotearoa/New Zealand's indigenous wildlife species - the South Island robin, weka, tui, and kereru.

I traversed the ancient and deep forests; felt the grainy golden sands of beaches; and swam in the turquoise waters of the Marlborough Sounds. I traipsed through steep slopes, rocky outcrops, and tripped over tangled tree roots. I waded through trickling water and giant silver boulders. I crept gently through bright green mossy forest floors.

I walked as a stranger among familiar sights.

While the full-throated gurgle of the tui rang out, I moved clumsily and heavily. I felt just like a swollen tick, full up with the blood of the animals who did not know the danger my species represents.

Still, the fairy land atmosphere was so very Disney it was hard not to lose yourself in it. Fantails flittered around playfully.

The gorgeous South Island weka captured my imagination and delighted me. This bird is indigenous to Aotearoa/ New Zealand and is a characterful and intelligent creature, quick to take advantage of human habitation. They pinch things from campers and steal them away stealthily, and with great speed, into the undergrowth.

But what is not well- known is that the Weka and other indigenous birds are being poisoned by aerial drops of Brodifacoum, an extremely inhumane and lethal poison. The Weka is completely unprepared for that level of human stupidity. This gregarious bird is at risk from primary and secondary poisoning in areas where Brodifacoum is dropped. I think that is unforgivable.

A report by Eason and Spur on the risks of Brodifacoum to our native species was published by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in 1995. It clearly states that our indigenous species are at risk from this poison: “Both species of bats and about 60 species of birds occur in areas where brodifacoum baits could be used for rat control. Any bats or birds that come into direct or indirect contact with brodifacoum baits would be at risk from primary or secondary poisoning".

Scary stuff, especially since I witnessed a Weka picking up a cigarette butt and swallowing it whole without any hesitation. Not long after, at Brook Valley I noticed a sign. Brodifacoum. Deadly to dogs.

The sign did not mention that it was also deadly to Weka. But it is. Not far down the track I witnessed a disoriented and staggering Weka flapping hopelessly about. The Weka disappeared into the undergrowth. He looked sick.

I felt sick. I don’t like to see animals suffer.

Keas are also at risk. Fiona McQueen, who has written a book outlining the case against aerial 1080 poisoning, notes that keas are particularly susceptible to poisoning due to being omnivorous and inquisitive – just like the weka.

Keas, our wonderful olive-green parrot with bright orange underwings, is nationally endangered. They used to be so numerous that farmers considered them pests and shot them from the sky. That seems to be New Zealand’s solution to many things – kill, kill, kill. Now only a few thousand keas remain.

But it’s not only animals at risk – humans are too. Public health is a significant concern when it comes to poisoning. 1080 is DOC’s poison of choice. In fact, New Zealand uses 90 per cent of the world’s supply.

The recent case of the Waikato family poisoned after eating wild pig highlights the potential issues of using poisons as ‘pest control’. A recent article in Rangitikei Environmental Health Watch states that, “It is not unlikely that the family ate a significant non-lethal dose of fluoroacetate and fluorocitrate (the lethal metabolite of 1080) from poisoned pork.”

Toxicologist Professor Ian Shaw has recently issued a statement saying that the family’s symptoms pointed to 1080 poisoning.

I get the logic behind the use of poisons. Conservation of our beautiful ecosystems is a laudable goal and one that I am on board with. Aotearoa/ New Zealand was once a vibrant world of bird song and evergreen forest. Human occupation has resulted in a loss of 40 per cent of its terrestrial birds, and more than 40 per cent of remaining species are classified as threatened. This is a higher proportion than any other country.

But poisoning this fragile ecosystem to rid the land of exotic species is not the answer. The collateral damage is just too high. This includes immense animal suffering, unintended by-kill (including indigenous species), and potential public health risks.

McQueen says that killing in the name of conservation is a form of environmental facism that is becoming increasingly challenged by the public and by many ecologists, biologists and conservationists.

We can do better, Indeed, we must do better. New Zealand will never again be the ancestral ecological configuration it once was. Conservationists such as Dr Jamie Steer recognise this, arguing that we should not focus on restoring an ancient ecosystem, but rather appreciating the new biodiversity we have.

I will leave the final word to a DOC ranger I met on my travels around the Queen Charlotte track. I asked him what he thought about the poisoning campaign. He said he felt it was unnecessary, and that there was enough room in our forests for everyone.

He’s on the right side of history.


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