The scientific effort to take out our biggest pests

Nearly 18 months on from the previous government announcing Predator Free 2050, an ambitious goal to eradicate our most destructive invasive pests, the research that will underpin the strategy has been unveiled.

Predator Free 2050 Ltd is the company that was set up to invest in predator eradication and steer the major scientific effort that will be required to achieve the goal. In particular, the intermediary goal of eradicating at least one small mammalian predator from the mainland by 2025 will be a tall ask – that’s a mere eight years away.

Rats, stoats and possums are all in the scientists’ sights as they progress work on all three target pests.

You can view the strategy here.

The scientific effort will be divided into three parts:

  • ‘Environment and society’ will explore social and cultural views about predator eradication,and confirm and expand our understanding of environmental and ecological consequences.
  • ‘Eradicating the last 1%’ and ‘New genetic control tools’ are the two technical research programmes. The components of each were identified by the strategy group as offering the greatest potential benefit to Predator Free 2050 goals.
  • ‘Computer modelling’ underpins the strategy, and will develop shared tools that all communities and agencies contributing to Predator Free 2050 can use to design the right approach for their goals and environment.

So we have social science to understand the public’s appetite for this sort of effort, modelling work to get a better idea of the target species populations that are there and the impact interventions will have on the environment, and two specific themes of more technical work, one of which will explore use of genetic technologies as potential eradication measures.

Towards 2050 – the predator free research strategy

As has previously been flagged, that work on genetic solutions will likely be carried out in conjunction with institutions and researchers overseas. Gene drives are being considered, but Predator Free 2050 is clear to point out that these are early days for the technology and they may not be suitable:

“Such tools may be practically unfeasible, carry too many risks, or be socially unacceptable for a role in Predator Free 2050. This programme will fill knowledge gaps to enable informed consideration,” a statement from the company read.

The scientific projects include:

  • Underpinning rat genomic resources – Genome sequencing in collaboration with Genomics Aotearoa and the Biological Heritage Challenge will increase our understanding of NewZealand’s rat populations, including the feasibility of their potential genetic control.
  • Informing on technology hurdles – Gene-drive research is at a very early stage, with theoretical considerations far ahead of proven fact. Exploration of aspects such as their stability and safety with leading overseas researchers will provide caution as appropriate.
  • Modelling potential application to rats – Mathematical modelling will further inform onwhether gene-drive could actually make a meaningful contribution to the eradication ofreal-world rat populations, beyond what could be achieved through other approaches.
  • Mouse ‘proof of concept’ gene-drive – If the fundamental premise of gene-drive cannot beshown to work in mice, it will have little potential to contribute to a 2025 science solution.This will be explored overseas with the ‘Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents’ partnership.
  • Norway and ship rat gene-drive – Dependent on technological hurdles being surmounted,supportive policy, and New Zealand/international appetite to proceed, gene-drives may potentially be researched in the future for application initially to rat eradication.

So, a big work programme, but a new government in place that has vowed to increase conservation spending and is particularly interested in this pest eradication work. The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge will likely play a major role in this work.

There will also be political issues to sort out. New Zealand First wants to see an end to the use of 1080 poison to control pests. That’s just not realistic in the short to mid term and indeed, aerial 1080 drops are listed in the strategy as part of the mix along with trapping and toxins for “eradicating the last 1%” of possums and other pests, where existing efforts have massively lowered their numbers already.

By the way, the official intermediate goals (by 2025) for the Predator Free 2050 strategy are:

  • Enlarge target predator suppression to an additional one million hectares of mainland New Zealand.
  • Eradicate predators from at least 20,000 hectares of mainland New Zealand without the use of fences.
  • Eradicate all predators from New Zealand’s island nature reserves.
  • Achieve a breakthrough science solution capable of eradicating at least one small mammalian predator from the mainland.


  1. Stephen Thorpe

    @Grant Jacobs

    “there may be (or is) opportunity in NZ that other nations don’t have in that we have off-shore islands, and also that we’re seeking to eliminate things that were never a part of the NZ fauna”

    I’m not sure of the relevance of the last bit, i.e. “and also that we’re seeking to eliminate things that were never a part of the NZ fauna”

    So what? It doesn’t make the elimination any easier. It may make it harder, since introduced pests can prosper and become more entrenched in new places where their natural controls are absent (which is kind of the whole point with invasive exotics).

  2. Grant Jacobs

    Nice to see the “bits” laid out, especially the last – that there are intermediate goals.

    I have to admit I’ve wondered about the timeline for the goals; they seem short to me. I have no expertise outside of the molecular genetics approaches, so it’s a layman’s concern for those applications.

    1080 has been played to by activist groups, which isn’t helpful IMHO. (For those reading, Alison and perhaps others have written about 1080 at Sciblogs; if you use the search function on the home page, you ought to find their articles.)

    re gene drives, “may now be suitable” probably is meant to be “may not be suitable” – ?

    A loose comment on gene drives and similar ideas: there may be (or is) opportunity in NZ that other nations don’t have in that we have off-shore islands, and also that we’re seeking to eliminate things that were never a part of the NZ fauna. (Unlike places trying to eliminate mosquitos, for example, because of disease risk where the mosquitos have “always” been there, i.e. are endemic and long an established part of the ecosystem.)

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