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Tuesday, January 14, 2003

New Zealand wildlife sanctuaries are being threatened by ecological sabotage.

An anonymous extremist group has claimed to have released 11 brush-tailed possums on Kapiti Island, an important nature reserve, in what has been called an act of "gutless vandalism" by the NZ Minister of Conservation. It's not yet clear whether these claims are linked to the Biodiversity Action Group which threatened to release stoats on Codfish and Stewart Islands last year. Both are thought to be acts of protest by hunters opposed to control of introduced pests and could have devastating effects on key populations of rare native birds.

Such acts threaten the ecological restoration of islands, which is key to New Zealand's conservation effort. New Zealand's native plants and animals evolved in the absence of land mammals and are highly vulnerable to predation, competition and habitat destruction inflicted by introduced pests. Eradication of these pests - including possums, stoats, weasels, cats, rats, deer, pigs and goats - from the mainland may never be feasible, but has been achieved on some key offshore islands such as Kapiti and Codfish. Rare native birds threatened with extinction have been moved to these islands in an effort to safeguard their future.

The islands currently threatened with eco-terrorism represent some of New Zealand's key conservation successes. Kapiti is an important sanctuary for rare native birds such as the takahe, kokako, little spotted kiwi and saddleback. Codfish Island (Whenua Hou) holds the main breeding population of the kakapo, a unique flightless parrot and one of the rarest birds in the world, with only 86 individuals remaining. Stoats, which prey on eggs and chicks, could have devastating effects on these ground-nesting birds. Stewart Island (Rakiura) is New Zealand's third largest island and is currently free of stoats and weasels. It was designated a National Park in March 2002 amid opposition from hunters, who value its population of introduced white-tailed deer.

The recent threats have been directed at New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DoC) and Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society because of their support for control of introduced deer and Himalayan thar under the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy. These pests serve as quarry for large numbers of recreational hunters, some of whom are outraged at DoC's aerial control operations. However, hunting groups are distancing themselves from the recent possum release claim, which is being taken seriously. DoC is using trained sniffer dogs to search Kapiti for the suspected possums.