Killing for conservation

By Elijah Hicks

Over the month of December, the Karioi Project had the pleasure of hosting American Watson Fellow Elijah Hicks, and his wife Mo, during their year-long worldwide travels / observations / participation studies. In a nutshell, Elijah’s project is to collect stories of practical hope of communal restoration, wilderness preservation, and agricultural regeneration for a world desperately in need. What follows is Ejijah’s account of their time with the Karioi Project, as visitors to Aotearoa and what conservation means here.

Our first introduction to on-the-ground conservation was a day in the field learning how to trap mammalian predators. After eating a simple breakfast, we packed a bag with water, hot tea, rain jackets, and headed out the door. Our drive took us through the vivid rolling green hills of Raglan, a mix of early successional fern tree forests, and agricultural grazing pasture dotted with sheep and cows. In the background, the aquamarine ocean touched the horizon, ever drawing the eye. As luck would have it, our meeting place was Manu Bay, arguably the most famous surfing destination in NZ. 

We pulled into the parking lot to meet the project’s volunteer coordinator Jasmine Edgar (aka the ruthless possum killer). She was to introduce us to on-the-ground conservation in NZ—trapping. We threw some extra rat traps in my bag, and made our way to the first trap. The trap was a four-sided wooden box with mesh on each side. One side of the mesh is a small opening that allows mice, stoats, and rats through, and curious birds out. The actual trap inside looks like a giant mouse trap, and works in pretty much the same way. Bait the trap with peanut butter or dehydrated rabbit, spray a little salmon oil in for style, close up the trap, and wait. 

The first trap was empty, and I can’t say I was too disappointed. The thought of encountering a large rodent in various stages of decomposition is not a pleasant thought. Yuck!

“Open the Trap NZ app and see if you can find the trap closest to our GPS dot, and click on it,” Jasmine instructed. The app is home to the data for the Karioi Project, along with countless other projects across New Zealand. A quick look revealed hundreds of colour-coded traplines, most of which snake up Karioi. Our trapline today was along the ocean, aiming to protect the grey-faced petrel and other seabirds depending on the shoreline for part of their lifecycle.

“Now click ‘bait bad,’ and mark ‘rebaited’ with ‘dehydrated rabbit’ and ‘salmon oil,’ then hit ‘save’.” Jasmine closed up the trap, and we followed the GPS track to the next trap about a hundred meters away.

“Oh! Look what we’ve got here!” said Jasmine. Inside was a big fat, dead rat. Stinky too! Carefully she pried open the trap and grabbed the rat out with her pair of metal tongs. 

“When you get an animal in there, be sure to toss it far off so that the next person that checks the trap isn’t kneeling in rotten rodents.” she told us, “Now it’s your turn!” She handed me the equipment and Mo took the phone to do the data recording. 

 

The first decomposing rodent was indeed a little grim, but really not so bad. In fact, it was soon exciting. Almost like a game. Will the next trap have a rodent? If so, what will it be? 

“I got into trapping as a volunteer for the Karioi Project,” said Jasmine,” and once you start, it’s almost addictive, and you can’t stop. So after my kids got a bit older and I had more time, I joined the staff to do more trapping, and I love it. I’m learning all about the bush in addition to checking and setting the traps. It’s really a great way to get to know the forest.” 

But wait…since when did conservation involve killing?! Before preparing to travel to New Zealand, I had no idea about the ongoing rodent massacre in New Zealand. 

As it turns out, New Zealand is an extremely unique country ecologically speaking. Located in the middle of the South Pacific ocean, the closest country, Australia, is more than 1700 km (1000 miles) away. Due to this isolation, the entire island was populated only by birds. The only native mammals found in the country pre-human settlement were bats. Because of this, the birds evolved in complete isolation from land-based predators. The only predators were raptors. Many birds evolved away from the ability to fly, finding all their food on the ground, and having no need to escape predation through the air where it was easier to get picked off by a falcon. The defense mechanism for the animals was to freeze. A still object was hard to spot for hunters in the sky. Some of these flightless birds included the kiwi, the kākāpō, takahē, penguins, and the giant 250 kg moa (550 lbs) which were hunted by giant (Haast’s) eagles. 

As expert navigators, the Māori people arrived between 1250 and 1300 CE, from east Polynesia in giant seafaring canoes. With them came stowaway pacific rats, and pet dogs. Europeans came in the 1840s bringing with them all kinds of mammals including other species of rats, rabbits, possums, goats, deer, and wild boar to mention a few. When the rabbits got out of hand they brought over ferrets, stoats, weasels and cats to kill the rabbits. All of these mammals multiplied, spreading throughout the country. The predators feasted on the easy-to-catch native species. Settlers began trapping as part of the fur trade, but also in an attempt to combat the mammal plague over taking the country. 

Since the arrival of humans 800 years ago, New Zealand has lost 53 species of birds, many of which were found nowhere else in the world. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation  (DOC), 25 million native birds are killed by predators each year. 4000 species (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) are threatened or at risk of extinction. In some places the rats became such a problem that they infested houses, eating all the wallpaper and anything edible in the building.

By the 1900s, New Zealanders recognised that they had a serious problem. By the 1950s, DOC offered bounty for possum pelts, reducing populations in accessible areas (but not the bush).

In 2004, the Karioi Project began as a fledgling community effort to protect the biodiversity of Karioi and the surrounding Raglan area. More than a decade later in 2016, the government announced the “2050 predator free goal,” an ambitious goal to rid the country of all mammalian predators. 

Trapping rats is one thing, but when it gets to animals we consider as pets, conservation has a whole new meaning. 

“What was it like when you found your first cat in a trap?” I asked Jasmine. 

“Yeah. It was really tough. I was running a trapline up Karioi and got to this one trap and thought ‘wow that’s a big stoat,’ then I realised it was a feral kitten. Killing animals is not fun, but it comes to a point where we have to decide if we’re going to do something, or just watch as we lose all our birds. Cats were never meant to live out in the bush, they don’t live good lives, and they don’t belong. Once I realised that, I saw it as part of the dirty work of real conservation.” 

Who are we, and how did we find ourselves killing rodents in New Zealand? After graduating with a degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources from a small college in Kentucky U.S.A I won a Watson fellowship to study ecotourism for a year. More specifically, my goal was to study the intersection between small scale tourism, wilderness preservation, and community development. Moriah, as my wife, got to join the adventure. 

 

In my research I have found that values are vital to the preservation of wilderness. Those values can protect and build communities and the land in which they live. Without values, places, especially tourism destinations, easily fall into the trap of commodification and desolation (no one cares for the land unless it makes good money). In many ways, I believe that faith is the act of creating and honoring values, of saying “enough,” a very inhuman concept. 

While researching possible destinations for my project, I came across New Zealand’s chapter of A Rocha, a faith-based approach to conservation. I reached out to them to learn more, and was referred to the Karioi Project, one of their main conservation efforts in New Zealand. Raglan, being a prime tourism destination and the organisation’s work with the community and conservation made this project a perfect fit. 

A few days after trapping with Jasmine, we joined the Annual Christmas party at Orca’s restaurant on the harbour. We arrived to find a robust crowd of volunteers sharing drinks and catching up. All of them were part of the nearly 100 volunteers that have adopted a trapline for the Karioi Project. We sat down at a table and joined a team of locals for the Karioi  pub quiz prepared by staff member Lenny (aka “the Milkman” so named for the way he routinely checks traps in people’s backyards). There were many laughs and good times that night. Trapping is a tangible action that brings the community together. It’s hard and unglamorous work, but slowly it’s making a difference. 

One of our highlights was witnessing the banding of ōi chicks (grey-faced petrel) with the Karioi team. We all met in the morning and made our way down the steep forested trails to a known ōi burrow which is 1-3 meters deep. Ōi typically mate for life. It takes them up to 8-10 years for them to reach reproductive maturity. This is the only reason they come to the shore, to nest and raise young. They lay one egg in a well-established burrow prepared over the previous years. If successful, they will return to the same burrow year after year. The parents share the incubation and feeding of the chicks once hatched. The birds are banded to keep track of their movements and population numbers.

Kristel, who is certified in banding, opened the observation hole and reached down into the burrow. After a few tries, carefully she pulled out of the hole a big fuzzy chick! About the size of a small chicken, he squawked and moved around blinking at the light. This was his first time under the sun. Carefully Kristel proceeded to band the chick, and then safely return him to his burrow. This was one chick successfully protected, and not eaten by mammalian predators! In a few weeks this little guy would be off in the big world, flying the great seas. Before predator control, the ōi population in Raglan was all but dead.  This year the Karioi Project celebrated the 50th ōi (grey-faced petrel) successfully fledged from its seaside burrow, proving that their work has made notable impact. What a success!

It was an absolute pleasure to join the team at the Karioi Project. We learned much about the importance of conservation and what it looks like in one representative part of New Zealand. Much of the success of the Karioi Project comes from a tangible, albeit tough, shared community goal to keep Karioi and the surrounding Raglan area wild and beautiful. Karioi is on the cutting edge of preservation, even if it takes time for surrounding businesses to understand the importance of their work. In coming years maybe conservation efforts will find ways to even tap into tourism resources (that are drawn to the area for it’s wild charms) to help run ongoing conservation efforts, for truly, without the birds and native bush, Raglan would cease to be the charm that it is.

Elijah Hicks is from Stanton, Kentucky. He won the 2023 Watson Fellowship which gives him a grant to travel the world for a year and carry out an ambition and meaningful project. Elijah’s project is to research micro-ecotourism as a tool for uplifting and protecting the integrity of communities and wilderness areas. In a nutshell, Elijah’s project is to collect stories of practical hope of communal restoration, wilderness preservation, and agricultural regeneration for a world desperately in need.