Pioneering traps and a cuppa: weapons in the frontline battle to save our forests | WWF New Zealand

Pioneering traps and a cuppa: weapons in the frontline battle to save our forests

Posted on
21 September 2011
Story of a conservation forest trial, by WWF's Communications Manager Rosa Argent

“See here, this totara has been absolutely hammered by possums”, explains DOC Biodiversity Manager Darren Peters as we pause half way along a narrow forested ridge. “But that ends now,” he says, deftly screwing a lightweight piece of plastic to the side of the dying tree.

The totara’s would-be saviour is a deceptively benign looking but lethal trap. It works by killing possums instantly with a blow to the head from a Co2 fired piston; the animal falls to the ground and the trap then neatly resets ready to deliver another fatal blow. And another. By minimising the need for people to check and reset the traps regularly, this new technology could revolutionise the way we conserve our precious native wildlife and their forest homes.

My WWF colleague Marc and I have travelled from Wellington, in Darren’s DOC truck, to a remote area of native bush about 50 mins drive east from Inglewood in Taranaki. The 5000 hectares of private and publicly owned land is managed by the East Taranaki Environment Trust, a community-led group that is blazing a trail for conservation.

Once in the bush we can clearly see that it’s not just the once proud podocarps taking a hammering from introduced pests. Many native bird populations have one by one disappeared from this forest over the years. The roll call of the missing is depressing: Hihi. Bellbird. Saddleback. The haunting melody of the kokako was last heard here over two decades ago.

So we are here – armed with more than 200 automatic traps - at the start of a mission to reclaim this patch of forest from the invaders and to ultimately bring back the kokako.

Forests under attack

“Hammered”, “armed”. The language of conservation is tough because our forests are under attack. Each night, as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s recent report into the toxin 1080 reveals, 30 million possums are munching their way through our native trees and the nests of birds such as kereru and kokako. They have even been known to kill fledgling harrier hawks and fantails.

The solution to the invasion of possums, stoats and rats has traditionally been poisoning (either by ground setting or aerial drops of bait) or labour intensive trapping. Most of these traps have barely changed over the last hundred years. What is needed is new, more efficient and cost effective ways to bring pest populations under control, or better yet, eradicate them entirely.

The automatic trap we are trialling in East Taranaki offers hope. The non-toxic trap is the brainchild of three Victoria University industrial design graduates, who went on to form Wellington company Goodnature. Designed to avoid the accidental killing of native birds or other animals, they lure possums in with a sweet cinnamon scent and kill up to 12 animals before needing to be reset. Death is instant.  It’s the only possum trap to meet the National Animal Welfare Advisory Board Committee’s A class humane standards.

Conservation army
Karen Schumacher, founder of the East Taranaki Environment Trust, has worked her coordination magic and about a dozen conservationists from DOC, the Taranaki Regional Council plus other skilled volunteers have gathered in the tiny settlement of Purangi to help set out all 218 traps in just one day. WWF, in partnership with the Tindall Foundation, has provided $20,000 towards the purchase of these traps.

We are split into three teams and after an early morning briefing are sent off to lay traps along different lines in the 277 hectare block identified for the trial. It is raining lightly. Marc and I are on Darren’s team, whose many years experience of pest control work more than makes up for our lack of bush skills.

We walk our perimeter line stopping every 50 metres to screw the base of a trap to the tree, about a metre above the ground. The components are then easily clicked on. Traps are spaced twice as far apart on the internal lines. Marc’s role is to daub fera feed 219 or ‘smurf poo’ along the way – a sickly smelling blue goo that lures the possums in.  The labour is over by 3.30pm, when all teams assemble at a central hut having successfully finished their set up.

Ground poison operations will be conducted in an adjacent block to compare the results. The trial will be monitored and possum levels need to get to scientifically acceptable low levels over two consecutive years before kokako can be released in the forested area.

Conservation is not an easy job; in rugged New Zealand terrain it requires a lot of leg work. Abandon any romantic notions about conservation being glamorous – it’s physical but also sociable and rewarding.

Karen puts people at the heart of her success: “It’s all about building relationships… We sit down and talk with local farmers and landowners over a cuppa. We always make sure that the people who volunteer for us are well looked after”. They throw thank you lunches for volunteers every year.

Whether it’s her culinary skills, or background in financial accounting, Karen’s approach is certainly working. Cattle farmers from near Inglewood, Karen and husband Bob now devote all of their days – along with a huge amount of energy and their own money – to looking after the forest. Karen says their decision to purchase land a decade ago was due to a desire to “give something back” to the area.

It’s a model that Marc Slade, WWF’s Terrestrial Conservation Manager, hopes can be replicated across the nation. “Karen and Bob are a great example of how communities band together to save our wildlife and forests. While we hope kokako will one day sing again in East Taranaki, we are also excited to be backing new innovative pest control techniques that could benefit conservation efforts nationwide.”

East Taranaki Environment Trust success
The Trust has made some great strides in restoring the health of the ecosystem since it was established in 2002. The area now boosts an impressive 350 breeding pairs of western North Island brown kiwi. Kereru and robin have returned. And so do the volunteers, time and again, to check the lines, record the dead possums, count the kiwi calls and on this occasion, help set up the trial.

At the end of our day in the bush, we experience an exhilarating ride out on quad bikes. There’s a chill in air but nothing can dampen our spirits. Karen has laid on hot vegetable soup for the crew and soon has a BBQ on the go. Tea is brewing.

Talk turns to other trips into the bush, ill fated helicopter rides and the damage wild goats can do to the forests. Karen later tells me she is delighted with the day’s events: “It was awesome. I’m thrilled by how easy the whole thing was and how quickly the teams worked.’ Laying cyanide over the same area would have taken four days and a poison licence.

A local landowner once said the Trust could claim success for their save the kiwi project when the national symbol became so abundant they ended up as local road kill. “Well, a kiwi was killed on the road last November”, she says with a touch of sadness.

The beautiful song of the kokako reverberating through the forest will be a happier indicator of success. And after spending time with Karen, Bob and the team I am left with a sense of optimism that this community-led group - when armed with innovative technologies, determination, and a nice hot cuppa - will win the battle for our forest in East Taranaki.

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