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Kiwi ingenuity developing predator eradication technology

Kiwi ingenuity developing world-leading predator eradication technology - PF2050 Ltd

World-leading predator eradication and surveillance tools developed in Aotearoa New Zealand are among the latest products ready to help eradicate rats, possums and mustelids by 2050 - with the prospect of future export earnings as well.

The latest of three Predator Free 2050 Ltd (PF2050 Ltd) development contracts have resulted in a high-interaction-rate trap, long-life scented lures, and an AI thermal camera that can be deployed in remote locations - despite Covid-19 disrupting the supply of key components and fieldwork, PF2050 Ltd Science Director Dan Tompkins says.

"These products greatly reduce demand on people. The AI cameras report back when they see something. The lures allow traps to be in the field for months without being serviced. The more of people’s time we can save, the bigger the areas we can stretch control over," Dan Tompkins says.

With several eradication projects now running and more to come, PF2050 has created demand for as many as 500,000 new tools or devices to get the job done. Using the Provincial Growth Fund and co-funding, it has been able to focus both on developing new or updated tools and the supply chain for landscape-scale projects. The tools had to be available by June 2023, and at a reasonable price.

"This work also represents a huge export opportunity. New Zealand is so well recognised overseas as leading in this field, the prospects are pretty good for some decent international pick-up," Dan Tompkins says.

The Cacophony Project, a four-year-old not-for-profit venture already known for cutting-edge predator detection camera work, has developed a live-capture trap specifically designed to target the last few hard-to-trap individuals in a population, Cacophony programme manager Matthew Hellicar says.

"The tens of thousands of hours of footage we’ve gathered around traps shows that existing traps have a very low interaction rate - it’s possible we’re missing up to 99% of opportunities to catch a passing predator. We’re hoping to massively improve that.

"The current version of the trap uses motion sensors to detect animal presence. When the animals simply walk through on their way to the other side, or are lured in, the motion sensors trigger the very rapid closing of the sides.

"We’re working on an automatic reset mechanism, an intelligent trigger, and an automated kill mechanism. An intelligent trigger is the key next development. Confidence that what we’ve caught is something we should despatch allows us to introduce an auto-kill mechanism. Until now, the trap could only catch one thing a night, so we’re also introducing an automated reset mechanism."

Boffa-Miskell biosecurity consultant Dr Helen Blackie has developed long-life ceramic lures for rats, stoats and possums that remain effective for months, even in extreme weather. The ures, called ‘Poa Uku’, will be commercially available once Auckland comes out of lockdown, and will be available via Connovation Ltd.

"Everyone has always thought peanut butter is the best lure for rats, but when we presented them with other options we showed it isn’t.

"I can’t say what the scents are, but this is a real New Zealand Inc product. It’s 100% natural, non-toxic, and the only lure out there with solid science and extensive field trial results behind it. Even better, it’s one of those cost-effective and easy to use products which actually works," Helen Blackie says.

"We came up with a clear winner for rats, and then tested to see how long rats were attracted to it for. Over three months the lures got significantly more attractive - the longer they were out, the more rats liked them, and at every stage they were substantially more attractive than fresh peanut butter. At three months we got our best result. The same lure also works for possums.

"Mustelids also had a clear preference for a certain lure, and ferrets had the highest interactions with it after more than three months in the field.

"Fortuitously, one of the mustelid trial scents was hugely popular with rats, possums and hedgehogs. Mustelids liked it, rats were going nuts for it, and everything else was just hammering it. This random lure had over 1000 rat interactions - three-and-half times more than peanut butter did. When you’re trying to catch pests, that’s a big difference".

Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) has developed an AI thermal detection camera for use in remote locations, with alerts sent by low-orbit satellite to a response team, ZIP innovation director Phil Bell says.

ZIP is a charitable research and development company founded by DOC and the Next Foundation in 2015 to rapidly develop tools and technologies to enable elimination of predators from large areas of the mainland and protect those sites afterwards.

The camera uses machine learning - effectively giving the camera a brain and teaching it how to classify images - to identify rats, possums and stoats. It records a video, stores it, runs the learnt algorithm and sends an alert with the level of confidence it has that it’s seen a target predator.

"This technology will completely transform how we look after predator-free sites. It’s designed for areas where predators have been eliminated, so it’s sitting there watching, helping identify where there might be predators left so you can target those areas. This allows a far quicker and more targeted response than current approaches, Phil Bell says.

"Stripping out the labour and having real-time detection data means we can watch landscapes while we keep scaling up, and get back to any problem sites faster.

"Currently it takes our field team quite a long time to get around standard trail cameras and it can be 3-6 weeks after the predator was actually seen at that site. This device means there’s a massive improvement in timeliness of information, with a huge labour reduction. Now we can prepare the next project area, but be ready when the camera alerts us to something and get straight in there," Phil Bell says.

The camera will become the foundational detection device for the Predator Free South-Westland landscape project. Launched in March, the five-year project is the largest eradication project so far, aiming to eliminate rats, possums and stoats from a 100,000 hectare area between the Waiau and Whataroa Rivers, from the Southern Alps to the sea, including part of Franz Josef and the Whataroa township.

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