Because possums were originally introduced to New Zealand to establish a fur trade, it is worth examining the potential for using the possum as a resource, as a way of reducing possum numbers in critical areas. The pressure on possum populations for skins has always been driven by price and never by the benefits of reducing possum numbers because of the damage they cause. High prices mean lots of hunters and large numbers of possums killed, but when prices fall, so does hunter interest, and the number of possum skins. Export prices were good throughout the late 1970s, with sales peaking in 1981, when 3.2 million skins were exported. This hunting pressure reduced possum populations in many areas, especially in the easier “front edge” country. Hunting for commercial gain may not achieve the very low densities needed to meet Tb control targets or to restore forests and protect endangered species, but commercial hunting pressure, when prices are high, could provide useful ecological benefits in many areas where funds for possum control are unavailable.
Possum fur is less than 1% of the world fur market by value. It is best suited to the trimming business, where the fur trade supplies pre-made collars, cuffs and strips to textile or leather garment manufacturers. Prices and exports have been low since 1990, and many professional and part-time hunters have left the industry. The auction system for buying skins ceased in 1990, and large companies have abandoned the possum skin business.
Several attempts at farming possums were tried during the 1980s, from small hobby farms to large publicly listed companies. All attempts failed, because it took too long to get a saleable product and there was a high death rate of possums due to captivity stress.
Since 1993, there has been some interest in diversifying the range of possum-based products away from the traditional export of dried pelts. In 1996, the Possum Products Marketing Council was established, bringing together the previously disparate sectors of the possum industry. The Council aims to counteract the volatility of the fashion market by developing a broader range of possum products, and thereby creating a stable and sustained demand. It is hoped that this will lead to sustained control pressure on some possum populations and provide employment opportunities, especially in rural areas. There are now five major product groups derived from possums. They are pelts, leather, fibre, added-value products and meat. Various initiatives are showing promise, such as the use of possum leather for the manufacture of gloves, shoe uppers and innersoles. Fur fibre is now a commercial reality after extensive research.
By itself, commercial use of possums is unlikely to reduce possum numbers to the levels required to meet Tb control and biodiversity protection targets, particularly in the areas now controlled with 1080. However, hunting for profit is an additional mechanism that pest control agencies can use to put pressure on possum populations, especially in areas that do not justify official control measures. The harvest of possums for fur or meat could also act to slow the recovery of populations after initial control operations.
Employment schemes and contract hunters
The use of people on government employment schemes to carry out possum control, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s, was not a success. Kill levels and motivation were often poor, costs were high, stock and dogs were poisoned, and participants often returned to unemployment at the end of the scheme. One reason for the failure was the misconception that any able-bodied person can make a good hunter. In practice, successful hunters are highly skilled, motivated, self-employed professionals who do not fit the personal profile of many of the unemployed. Prospective hunters need high-quality training, and several training courses have now been established.
With the downturn in skin prices, and the increase in funds available for possum control work since 1989, there has been a significant transition by many professional hunters from being commercial hunters to possum control contractors. They have developed new commercial skills, have to tender for control operations, and have developed the ability to reduce possum numbers to the levels required by their clients. Contract hunters are increasingly used by DOC, private landowners and most regional councils, especially as more operations shift from initial reduction to maintenance control. Companies that employ contract hunters are currently reporting that there is a shortage of skilled and willing people in the industry.
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