Conservation Conversations #2: Al Bramley from Zero Invasive Predators

Conservation Conversations #2: Al Bramley from Zero Invasive Predators

We’re halfway through Conservation Week here in New Zealand, and people all over the country have been getting out and about to help preserve New Zealand’s birdlife and forest biodiversity.

When New Zealand broke from Gondwana around 85 million years ago, the islands were isolated from any continental land bridges, and the bird life evolved undisturbed with no land mammals native to the landmass. As one of the newest countries in the world to be discovered by humans, the New Zealand stayed mammal-free for many millennia until humans started bringing in introduced species of rats, stoats and possums.

In just a few hundred years these predators have wreaked havoc on New Zealand’s unsuspecting birdlife, causing many species to go extinct, and bringing others to the brink.

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Government announced an ambitious plan to make New Zealand entirely predator-free.

In the second of our Conservation Week Conversations, we’re bringing you an interview with Al Bramley, the CEO of Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP), a partnership that is helping in the battle to rid the country of all invasive predator species. Matthew Monahan spoken with Al last year at New Frontiers, just a few weeks after the launch of ZIP.

Al, tell us a bit about who you are and what you’re up to?

I’m the CEO of a new entity that’s been established between the New Zealand Department of Conservation and a philanthropic trust, the NEXT foundation.

We’ve been established to try and crack some of NZ’s big pest control problems, so that we’ve got new ways of working in the future that are much more sustainable than how we do it now.

Can you frame for us this really big issue of pest control in NZ and why it’s so important?

In most places in the world, if you stop cutting down your habitat and you stop hunting the things that are important, ecosystems recover. But in NZ that’s not the case. In NZ we have a number of invasive species that arrived very late, because we were late to be discovered. And those invasive species are still gnawing away at our native biodiversity and heading them towards extinction. So we don’t have the luxury of doing nothing, we have to go after them if we are to maintain our diversity.

I’m curious to know where are we at in terms of solving it the issues with pest control? And since you’ve spent so much time thinking about this, what’s your point of view on what the possible solution sets are?

At the moment our traditional model of pest control is around suppression. So we knock them down to low levels and then we come back in a year’s time, or two years’ time and knock them down again. And the majority of our work at the moment relies on aerial toxins to do that. Apart from that we also do a lot of ground-based trapping. But that never can reach very deep into the backcountry, and it’s very labour intensive. So if we are going to find sustainable solutions for the future, we need to come up with another way.

In New Zealand, we’ve managed to clear a number of our offshore islands of pests, completely. We’ve taken them off, removed them and we’ve been able to defend them from reinvasion. We now do very large islands. We’ve done islands up to 11,000 hectares in size. What myself and my my team want to do, is work out ways of bringing the zero predator environment to the New Zealand mainland. We’re going to start with peninsulas, and at the moment we’re charged with finding the new tools and techniques that will enable us to do that.

At the moment the concept is really simple — we want to put some form of barrier through the landscape, across a peninsula, but not a physical fence. Behind that barrier we will remove the key predators, which are rats, stoats and possums, and maintain them at zero density through clever detection. But there’s a number of technological hurdles that we need to solve to crack that problem.

Can you talk about a couple of the key technological hurdles that we don’t have a solution for yet?

The big one is detection. At the moment we do have technologies, community-willing, with which we can remove predators. We need better technologies, but we’ve got some. We can even build barriers that look like they don’t leak [predators]. There’s lots of room for improvement, but they work okay.

The big gap in the tool set is, if a rat arrives tomorrow on a peninsula that’s large, how do we find it fast enough before it builds a big population and undoes all the good that we’ve managed to achieve?

So detection of an invader in a big landscape is our key problem.

How much exploration has gone into sensor technology, drone technology, radio frequency, and so on at the trap level? How sophisticated are we talking with the current experimentation?

It would be fair to say we’ve been thinking about it for maybe a couple of years. At the moment we have technology that involves linking up sensors using UHF technology and sending data to satellites. But to be honest, we’re convinced there will be better systems. Systems that may rely on DNA technology to help us identify what’s turned up in a catchment, so that we can just sample the water around the coast edge. Or maybe some form of imaging that helps us realise what’s arrived.

The less infrastructure we put on the ground, or have to put on the ground, the better, because you have got to maintain it. So ideally we would have a system that might be air based, or you could pulse in at whatever frequency you need, so that the population doesn’t get a chance to explode.

There are specific characteristics of this problem that are unique in NZ, but it’s really a global issue on many levels. Any reflections on collaborations with other nations and communities? What you see as a potential role for NZ, and what do you hope to learn from others?

At the moment, it would be fair to say that New Zealand has a reputation in how to remove invasive species off islands. That’s something that we do export. But it would also be fair to say that we haven’t developed the technologies to do it on our mainland.

Tui, native to New Zealand. Photo: Wikipedia

Tui, native to New Zealand. Photo: Wikipedia

If we can find ways of detecting and deterring rats, then those are going to be highly exportable technologies for New Zealand.

Food security is often related to rat or rodent abundance. So although we’re seeking the solutions for conservation and for biodiversity gain, we know that it will be transferable technology to a lot of other industries that need to get on top of rats.

At this particular juncture in NZ’s time and history there seems to be an invitation for partnerships, and it sounds like your organisation is based on a multi-party partnership. Any reflections on this as it relates to the public sector working with the private sector, and the philanthropic sector?

It’s quite a unique time I think, in NZ’s history. Conservation used to be done out of the mainstream, and it was a “nice to have.” But I think increasingly we’ve realised — and the world is realising — that biodiversity is essential for our wellbeing. Whether it be for our recreational enjoyment, or whether it be for clean water or carbon sequestration, there’s a realisation going on, that it’s underpinning our existence. The trouble is that in order for us to keep being economically, socially and culturally wealthy, we have got to look after those places.

So the Department of Conservation is reaching out to New Zealand and the world to say “Hey, this problem is big. We want to maintain these amazing assets, but we need help because this is such a huge problem.”

And we’re now in a position where we’re reaching out to the world saying:

Have you got any good ideas for helping us solve our conservation problems? We would love if they become your problems.

I’m sure there’ll be great spinoffs — so we’re very keen to hear from people that have ideas, or energy or time who would like to help us crack those problems.

So if someone has energy or time or resources and they want to plug in on this, how do they do that?

They're welcome to contact me directly. My email address is al@zip.org.nz, and you can also take a look at our website, and also NEXT foundation website.

Conservation Conversations #3: Stu Barr of Goodnature

Conservation Conversations #3: Stu Barr of Goodnature

Conservation Conversations #1: Lou Sanson, Department of Conservation

Conservation Conversations #1: Lou Sanson, Department of Conservation