End of the rat race? New Zealand aims to become rat free by 2050

The government is hoping a rat-free countryside will give a boost to native birds, many of which have been threatened with extinction

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND // Their abilities to travel, multiply and spread disease have always made rats one of mankind’s greatest pests.

New Zealand says it’s time to wipe them out - every last one of them.

Prime minister John Key on Monday announced an ambitious plan to completely rid the South Pacific nation of rats and some other nuisance animals, including possums and stoats, by the year 2050.

The government is hoping a rat-free countryside will give a boost to native birds, including the iconic kiwi. Many bird species are threatened with extinction because rats and other pests feast on their eggs and compete with them for food.

New Zealand is hoping to build on its success in eradicating rats from several of its smaller islands.

But some scientists caution the goal, while laudable, will be extremely difficult to achieve in a nation similar in size to the United Kingdom.

Mr Key said the goal would require the help of everyone from philanthropists to indigenous Maori tribes.

“This is the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world, but we believe if we all work together as a country we can achieve it,” he said.

He said the government would initially contribute NZ$28 million (Dh72m) over four years toward setting up a company to run the programme.

The department of conservation has eradicated rats from several small islands using traps, poisons and baits. It has also intensively managed some areas on the main islands to make them safer for native birds.

But it would require a massive escalation of those efforts to completely wipe out the pests.

“I really do think it’s possible,” said ecologist James Russell, from the University of Auckland, who wrote about the idea before.

“It will require people working in every nook and corner of the country.”

But Jacqueline Beggs, another ecologist from the university, said eliminating pests from small, uninhabited islands was one thing, but getting everybody from farmers to anti-government types to agree on the idea would prove much more difficult, if not impossible.

“It’s definitely a fantastic challenge,” she said. “It will really stretch the boundaries.”

But she is worried the goal could distract from other important environmental issues and could even create new problems, such as an explosion in the population of mice.

* Associated Press

Published: July 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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