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A Timely Reminder about an Important Book

A Timely Reminder about an Important Book

Kathy White
June 18, 2011

The Guardian has just released its Top 100 Non-Fiction books of all time.

Silent Spring by marine ecologist and conservationist Rachel Carson was the award-winning book that came out in 1962 and shocked the world about the effects of pesticides on the environment. She died shortly after the book's release but her book launched the environmental movement in the US and eventually led to a ban on the use of DDT. So why is this relevant now?

New Zealand uses 90% of the world's supply of monosodium fluoroacetate (1080), which is classed by the World Health Organization as 1A (the most hazardous class of poison).
New Zealand is the only country in the world to drop 1080 poison from the sky as carrot- and cereal- baits. It ends up in streams, in birds' nests and on tracks. Poisoned animals rot where they die. The areas aren't closed to the public while the drops happen, and if someone inadvertently take a bit of cereal bait home in their boot treads, and their dog licks it off the carpet, the dog may die. Yet the label on Compound 1080 says it shouldn't be dropped anywhere near waterways and that poisoned carcasses should be burnt or buried deeply. Why do these rules not apply in New Zealand?

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recently said on Breakfast TV that this is not a major issue. There have been only eight dogs killed by 1080 in the last four years. The Minister of Conservation said in parliament that her department has only paid compensation for one dog in the Coromandel. So why does a Taupo farmer state on the Poisoning Paradise documentary that he's had eight dogs die after 1080 poison drops, that bordered his farm? Why are the 1080 messageboards and Facebook pages littered with testimony from people whose animals have died? How come there are farmers interviewed on Poisoning Paradise (which can be viewed at the Green Unplugged Film Festival) who talk about and show video footage of their animals dying from 1080 poisoning, and who were encouraged to submit incorrect compensation letters to pest control companies - pest control companies that work for DoC, regional councils and the AHB?

People who have lost animals to 1080 poison will tell you it's expensive to get an animal tested (more than $500), and that it's complex to go through the report process. Some of them give up rather than fight for compensation for one animal. So, do the official statistics mentioned by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment tell you the truth? No. The Index to the ERMA 1080 review documents are more useful. The animal welfare section tells you some interesting statistics. Cases include: "150 sheep died 10 weeks after poisoned carrots had been laid in paddocks" and "78 sheep died after grazing an airstrip used to load toxic carrot bait, 20 weeks after the operation." This section also includes 'time to death' statistics for various tested birds, mammals and invertebrates. A weka takes up to 18 hours, and a possum up to 97 hours to die. Research states that aerial drops of 1080 have killed up to 93% of deer. If you're in any doubt as to how inhumane this kind of death is, you can see photos of necropsy results comparing a deer that was shot with one that died of 1080 poison.

Yes, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is right that 1080 poison is an effective killer. That's what it was designed for. It was originally designed as an insecticide. It was so effective that most countries have banned it. As scientists Whiting-OKeefe pointed out in their ERMA submission, it kills anything that breathes air.

There are many reasons why 1080 poison shouldn't be dropped from the sky, but perhaps the most important question to ask is this. Is it ethical to randomly and inhumanely kill lots of types of animals, including the birds we are trying to protect, in an attempt to kill possums, rats and stoats? A lot of people believe it is not.

A number of scientists also believe it's bad for our ecosystems. One international scientist who spent five years studying and working in New Zealand, Alexis Pietak, released a scientific paper about 1080 and more recently published a comprehensive summary of the current concerns. One of the biggest concerns is that most of our at-risk insectivorous birds have not been studied.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment said that she hopes her report will stop the debate over 1080. Unfortunately she made a number of incorrect statements to the media, which provides little reassurance about her knowledge of 1080 and her determination to investigate beyond the information that DoC and the AHB provide. Over fifty years, DoC, the AHB and their predecessors have killed a lot of animals in their attempts to perfect this method of pest control, whether it was with jam baits that killed masses of bees, high sowing rates that killed large numbers of untargeted animals, or small carrot baits and chaff that killed high numbers of birds. There continues to be disagreement between scientists over whether 1080 poison has caused any net population benefit to a single native species.

One thing is certain. We need long-term, independent research by international scientists, not a report from a fox inside a hen-house.

Rachel Carson said a lot of thought-provoking things in Silent Spring. Perhaps we should re-read her book.


Kathy White is a New Zealand children’s author.

www.kathywhite.co.nz .

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