Predator-free 2050 - mainly a people problem

Dr Wayne Linklater explains why it's people, not pests, who represent the biggest challenge with the Government's plan to make New Zealand predator-free.


The Government has announced plans to form a joint-venture company to spearhead pest eradication efforts and exterminate all rats, stoats and possums in New Zealand by 2050.

You would think, reading this, and subsequent commentary by conservationists, that Aotearoa was already people-free too. But we are not, of course. Most of our island nation is populated—urban and farmed landscapes where introduced predators also like to live.

Remarkable gains have been made in developing the techniques and tools to eradicate pests from increasingly large and remote areas: Campbell Island and the current eradication of mice from the Antipodes Islands being good examples.

And progress is accelerating thanks to advances in biological understanding over the last four decades by universities, research institutes and private business. Critical too will be the impending landslide of new technologies, some of which are already developed, for more effective and economical pest control. New self-resetting traps, advanced lures and poisons, ingenious remote monitoring technologies, and more besides, promise to make it possible for large swathes of the New Zealand landscape to be predator-free.

The government model proposed is also timely. Several examples, like the NEXT Foundation-funded Zero Invasive Predators efforts on the Bottle Rock Peninsula, Queen Charlotte Sound, have proven that it can work, albeit for the moment at small scales.

But the places these success stories come from are places where people do not live or at least not in significant number. And a predator-free 2050 will require eradicating predators from peoples’ farms and backyards, and preventing people from inadvertently or intentionally re-introducing them.

Increasingly, as recent efforts to make Stewart Island predator-free or neighbourhoods cat-free have found, the greatest challenge is not how to kill predators and defend landscapes from animal reinvasion. The most difficult problem is how to convince people that this is a worthwhile goal and to cooperate in it. That requires changing peoples’ thinking and behaviour – a Herculean task.

It is common for conservationists to assume that their values are in the majority but this is not true. The zealot’s naiveté that just because they believe so passionately in conservation that everyone else must do to, or could easily be convinced to, is all too common. In reality, most people don’t care about conservation or, at least, they care much less about conservation than they care about other things. And, of course inevitably, some of those things that are important to them will conflict with the values and aspirations of conservationists.

Aotearoa is a diverse community. We are a nation of people with divergent values, beliefs and behaviours, even when it comes to the environment and conservation. Some people will want to trade in possum fur. Some will want to keep a cat. Some rats will be considered taonga. Some will want to hunt exotic wildlife and some don’t like killing - period. And all these people will also be the neighbours of others who want to kill rats, cats and possums. It’s the classic recipe for environmental conflict.

The conservation community of policy-makers, practitioners and researchers are largely unprepared for this societal challenge. I doubt the government received much advice from them with regard the human dimensions of the predator-free aspiration. The ranks of social scientists in conservation organisations are transparently thin, although they will be the most critical to a predator-free New Zealand by 2050. It is not biologists and technologists that are now most needed to reach the predator-free goal, but people trained in the social sciences.

And, by social sciences, I do not mean the legions of marketing and communications experts. Even the best media and marketing campaign changes the thinking and behaviour of only a fraction of the population and, most often, only the already receptive. No, instead I mean people trained in the social sciences—psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists who know the science of how to engage with people and communities to build consensus, support and change human behaviour.

Predator-free 2050 is a tremendous goal. Our nation can do it. But we are naïve to think that conservation and conservationists are ready for the real and largest challenge that is yet to come and which no amount of biological or technological expertise can solve—the people problem.

Dr Wayne Linklater is Associate Professor of Conservation Science and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University.

This commentary was originally published in the Dominion Post, 28 July 2016.