That we are now considering a predator free mainland is thanks to nearly six decades of dedicated research effort and sheer hard slog ridding our offshore islands of mammalian predators. This innovative work has driven an exponential leap in the potential – and success – of island pest eradications, from the very first rat operation by a boatload of volunteers on tiny, two-hectare Ruapuke islet in the Hauraki Gulf in 1960, to another world first in 2001 – removing rats from 11,300 ha subantarctic Campbell Island in a single operation.
New Zealand has now freed more than 110 of its islands from pests, and lessons learned on the islands have since been applied to the mainland, through wildlife sanctuaries – both fenced, (like Wellington’s Zealandia) and unfenced (like Te Urewera ‘mainland island’). Pest control techniques have been constantly refined and become much more effective. Possums, for example, can now be so well controlled that New Zealand farmers are very close to being free from the bane of Bovine Tb.
Just the same, Les Kelly knew it wasn’t enough. Dismayed by the collapse in bird numbers since his childhood, he began to realise that their rescue would come not from perpetual control, but total eradication across the entire country – from a ‘predator free New Zealand’. This idea captured the imagination of the late Sir Paul Callaghan, who raised it in the public and political consciousness as ‘New Zealand’s moonshot’.
Forest & Bird got behind him, leading a round of workshops that asked experts the first, crucial question: would such a thing be possible? From their answer came the Predator Free NZ Trust, an embodiment of Les’s vision to champion and promote his huge idea. People began to speculate about Stewart Island/Rakiura, Taranaki and Hawkes Bay becoming predator free.
Business and philanthropic trusts have lent their weight to this collective effort. Project Janszoon, for example, is a public/private initiative, supported by the NEXT Foundation, that has dramatically stepped up pest and weed control in Abel Tasman National Park, and supported the return of threatened species long since lost from the area, such as pāteke (brown teal), whio (blue duck) and the parrots kākā and kākāriki.
In 2015, the Government recognised this growing momentum, and public appetite, for more action to protect native biodiversity. That July, then-Prime Minister John Key announced the creation of Predator Free 2050 Ltd, a charity to direct Crown investment into an overarching goal – forests rid of the devastating impacts of stoats, rats and possums by 2050.