Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Radical Eradication: wiping out New Zealand's predators

Workers fill a monsoon bucket on a helicopter with pellets designed to kill possums near Greymouth, New Zealand Workers fill a monsoon bucket on a helicopter with pellets designed to kill possums near Greymouth, New Zealand Lakeview Images
02 Sep
2017
As part of New Zealand’s plan to cull millions of predators, scientists are consulting the public about controversial gene technology

Last year, the government of New Zealand announced its commitment to eradicate millions of possums, stoats and rodents in a bid to improve the survival chances of its declining native species – particularly its birds. The project, predicted to take decades, will involve a ‘scaling up’ of eradications already carried out on a number of its uninhabited islands, where toxins were scattered by helicopter. A key difference, however, is that the national scheme might involve an as-yet uninvented genetic modification technique called ‘gene drive’ technology.

The technology might, for example, involve editing rodents’ genes so they can only produce male offspring, before releasing them to mate in the wild. The ‘drive’ element means the daughterless trait would be more likely to be inherited than unmodified genes, causing eliminations in relatively few generations. It’s likely the project would learn from larger gene drive efforts – such as US trials on malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

For such a plan to happen, however, the population of New Zealand needs to be on board. ‘We are surveying the attitudes of thousands of New Zealanders towards such novel pest control techniques,’ says James Russell, an ecologist at the University of Auckland and research co-ordinator of the country’s ‘Predator Free’ plan. Russell believes gene drives ‘have the potential to be very controversial’, especially given  the country’s history of being anti-genetic modification when it comes to food.

He hopes the survey results, which are due at the end of this year, will show how residents break down into different groups when it comes to GM rodents: ‘There might be people who are anti-toxin that are relieved. And then there could be people who are anti-toxin but think that gene editing is even worse.’

He stresses that the project must align with the national mindset – that it is as much a social transformation as it is a biological or technical one. ‘We are in the unique position with technological developments that we are able to carry out these large-scale eradications,’ he says. ‘However, we are not going to have a predator-free New Zealand just on breakthrough alone. It needs to be what the human population wants to see happen on its islands.’

This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Nature

The field of bioremediation involves cleaning up toxic waste products…

Wildlife

A new analysis tots up the cost of invasive species…

Climate

It’s surprisingly difficult to know why trees die, but understanding…

Nature

By the late 1980s, almost all mature specimens of the…

Oceans

Scientists are discovering that narwhal tusks reveal a great deal about…

Climate

Climate change is bringing earlier, dangerous 'false springs', longer summers…

Wildlife

A victory for conservation, South Africa has announced plans to…

Energy

The UK has made little progress decarbonising heating, but a significant source…

Nature

The concept of 'natural capital', where the value of nature…

Geophoto

Prestigious photography competition returns for a fourth year

Climate

Founded in the USA by Denis Hayes, Earth Day became…

Geophoto

Tom Goldner's project Do Brumbies Dream in Red? is an intimate portrayal…

Wildlife

Not your usual tune: translating spider's silk into sound could…

Oceans

Millions of oysters have been rescued from the struggling shellfish…

Climate

History is littered with examples of fungi helping to digest…

Geophoto

The streets of Philadelphia are home to a small and forgotten…

Geophoto

When photographer Matthew Maran first snapped a fox he had…

Wildlife

Coloradans have voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state