Photo: Anthony Behrens
Part 2: A change of heart?
When the SPCA called for a complete ban on the use of 1080...because killing animals with poison is cruel...I got it. They are the SPCA! Their job is to prevent cruelty and poison IS usually cruel. Anti 1080 campaigners cheered. Pro 1080 campaigners complained. The rest of New Zealand went on with the business of worrying about what to eat for tea.
Well last week, the SPCA bowed to considerable pressure from conservation organisations like Forest & Bird and came to their senses - the animal welfare organisation changed its mind. Well...kind of. Well OK...if you actually read what they've said...not really.
“...while we understand why poisons (such as 1080) are currently being used, as an animal welfare organisation we still can’t support their use.”
SPCA website, February 4, 2019.
This doesn’t look like a back down to me. This looks like a rearrangement of words.
Here’s the original statement from the SPCA:
"SPCA is against the use of poisons to kill animals due to the level of suffering they cause, as well as the nature of their use. We would like to see a ban on the use of poisons such as 1080.”
SPCA Website, 7 January, 2019
As of February 14, 2019, the SPCA hadn't removed the original statement, that called for a complete ban, from its website.
To celebrate the organisation’s slippery PR and the media’s willingness to accept it as a change, read on:
Te Potae Diary - Day 1
TE IKA A MAUI
When Māui hooked his big fish, his brothers got a little over-excited. While he was distracted by prayers of thanks, Maui’s brothers went on a killing frenzy. They hacked, slashed and ripped at the fish until it lay dead before them. It’s the Rangitikei/Ruahine area of the North Island that seems to have carried much of the brunt of the attack. Vertical cuts have left a myriad of impassable channels through hard limestone and papa. Deep gashes have formed great mountains of crumbly rock. Huge piles of broken flesh attract storms that continue to eat away at the fish even now. As we flew over the chaos below, we could see fresh gaping wounds through the thick forest canopy.
Māui may not have been pleased by his ill-disciplined brothers, but I’m pretty sure Tāne was. Man has failed to tame the Ruahine, and Tāne’s children are happy about this.
Well...not really. Man may not have managed to turn the rough Ruahine into farmland, but he has bought plenty of destruction to the place. Weeds, fires, introduced stoats, rats, possums and cats have plundered and spoiled the pristine looking forests that lie the length of the fish's spine. Very small populations of vulnerable birds like whio, kiwi, kakariki and kaka hold on, but every year these populations seem to be getting smaller.
“Shit,” Janet says over the chopper’s intercom. “The bloody bait’s in the hut!”
We’re sitting in the helicopter on the helipad outside Ruahine Corner Hut. The pilot has taken our food and bedding inside. I go to get out of the chopper to tell him, then remember we’re not meant to budge. I put my seatbelt back on.
When he comes back, the situation is explained over the roar of the engine and I’m soon sitting in the machine by myself, wondering what I’d do if the handbrake slipped.
Choppers are not cheap to hire. We’d come all this way to rebait a few hundred stoat traps and narrowly averted leaving half our bait in the hut. Tramping and helicopter rides are fun, but we had a job to do.
The Potae trap network is the Ruahine Whio Protectors’ biggest and most difficult area of operation. More than 600 single-set DoC 200 traps sit in gullies, on mountains, beside rivers, on slips and amongst thick bush at 100 metre intervals. Our job was to check, clear, reset and rebait every one of those traps. Weather allowing, this gets repeated once a month.
“600 traps. 100 metres apart. Pfff. That’s not that much. There are six of you. What’s the big deal?” you are perfectly entitled to ask. My answer would be that this is a perfectly big deal because that equates to 60kms of trapline through some of the steepest, crumbliest, and gnarliest country anyone with the slightest bit of sanity has ever laid a trapline out on.
It seems like a two minute chopper ride from Ruahine Corner Hut to the Ikawatea ridgeline and Janet and I are soon readying ourselves for the day’s work. Crisis with the bait averted, it becomes apparent that we have another problem. Our route down to Ikawatea Forks Hut isn’t on a track, it meanders through forest that seems to be recovering from the ravages of overgrazing by deer. Traps that once sat in quite open forest floor are becoming hard to find. Each trap has a GPS coordinate, but the GPX file Janet got from DoC the day before hasn’t matched up with the terrain. According to the Garmin...we’re a kilometre...over there.
We’re soon wandering through thick scrub following a random line of fading pink tape that often disappears. It’s not tiring work, but it’s slow and a little frustrating. Pairs of trappers tend to bunnyhop traps...while one person clears one trap, the other walks to the next one and does the same. It makes for efficient travel. We tried, but the undergrowth was too thick. We couldn’t see the next trap, and couldn’t see each other if we strayed too far. Often we found ourselves splitting up as we looked for the next pink ribbon or trap. Occasionally we’d have to call each other in and start our search again.
Kiwi live on the ridge and I would have liked to spend a bit of time looking for their telltale probings, but because we were a little on edge, we just ploughed on. Riflemen, fantails, whiteheads, tomtits, warblers, tui and what I like to think were robins, kept an eye on us. As we got lower, it got hotter. At lunchtime we stopped for morning tea.
Time flies when you’re having fun, but not refueling was my first mistake.
By 1.20 we were sitting under trees at Ikawatea Forks Hut. In an attempt to cope with the heat I made my second mistake for the day - I gulped two litres of water and had what probably amounted to a snack for lunch before we headed down to the river and a very steep climb back up to the “flat” tussocklands of Ruahine Corner.
Harry and Tony were fishing for trout below the hut. As often happens in Te Ruahine, we found that we weren’t strangers - we’d met before. They pointed out a lone whio duckling 50 metres upstream. It looked lost, but there were fresh adult footprints in the sand around our feet. Mum and dad were hopefully just hiding.
We said goodbye to the fishers and headed up the other side of the valley. It was steep and hot. I was soon gasping. I was soon feeling faint. All the strength in my legs was gone. My heart was struggling. I got slower and slower. As we climbed I had to rest more. Janet took over the work - my job was just to keep going.
“Am I going to have to push the button Anthony?” Janet said, pointing to her personal locator beacon, as I tried to find comfort on a piece of soft moss.
“No fucken way,” I thought to myself as I sat swooning miserably.
“Nah. I’ll be fine,” I replied. My cracker tasted awful. The chocolate did too. I wanted to be sick.
“This has never happened to me before. I feel like an idiot,” I mumbled as Janet patiently led me up the ridge.
“Am I about to have a heart attack?” I wondered as I got weaker and weaker.
After a very long time we found ourselves resting at the top. Normally I would have been wandering around photographing the beautiful limestone formations and grand vistas, but I was shattered. Janet radioed the others, who were thankfully on their way across the flats to us. They’d already sorted the traps we wouldn’t be managing.
“Perhaps they’ll offer to carry my pack?” I fantasised as they came into view.
“Graham, why don’t you take Anthony’s pack,” suggested Janet helpfully.
“No bloody way,” was my response. I handed him my bumbag of tools though and Graham was pleased with the compromise. I staggered on.
We reached the hut at 7.00. It had been a long day.
The six bunk hut was more than full. Tony and Harry and two hunters were waiting for us when we arrived. A pot of water sat beside the water tank. In the pot sat a fresh deer heart and Ernie’s Peanut Slabs. The chocolate bars had melted in the heat of the day and Ernie reckoned the hunters wouldn't mind if he borrowed their pot to harden them up. The hunters didn’t mind at all.
As I slowly recovered, I found the evening to be full of pleasant and interesting conversation.
THE MYSTICAL ART OF WHIO PROTECTION
The following opinions and observations are mine - they do NOT represent the opinions of the Ruahine Whio Protectors nor any of the people photographed for this story.
As I write this, I’m looking at my notebook.
440 - Rat - trap needs new mechanism
441 - Rat - trap wouldn’t reset
442 - Stoat
454 - Sprung, no kill
Every rat, every stoat, every faulty trap has to be recorded. It feels good to get a kill, but the best possible outcome is to catch nothing. 14 months ago, a 1080 drop was carried out in the area we were walking through. In the space of a day and a half, nearly 33,000 hectares of the Ruahine Forest Park and the neighbouring iwi-owned Awarua o Hinemanu area were treated with the controversial toxin. To say that the 1080 operation killed every possum, rat and stoat in the area would be impossibly optimistic, but monitoring afterwards found zero trace of all of these animals. A whio survey a few months later found that the vulnerable bird had a very good breeding season after the drop.
About one third of New Zealand, or 8.5 million hectares, has been “set aside” to protect the flora and fauna that exists within. The Ruahine Forest Park is a tiny percentage of this area at 54,000 hectares. It’s about 110kms long and at its highest, sits at just over 1700 metres above sea level. RWP, an organisation of volunteers with support from DoC, maintains a trap network of about 3000 traps that target stoats within the park. Most of the stoats caught are trapped in alpine areas prone to heavy snow and impenetrable winds. The ducks the organisation is trying to protect live in the deep, often dark and cold river valleys the mountains surround.
Whio protectors don’t target rats with their traps because rats don’t care about whio. The blue duck is too big to get taken out by a mere rat.
Stoats are the whio’s biggest problem. Only 1 out of 10 unprotected baby whio will grow to adulthood while half of their mothers will get killed sitting on their nests. Most of those deaths are caused by stoats.
No one knows how many stoats live in Te Ruahine, let alone New Zealand. But RWP does have records that offer a very vague idea of the war they’re waging. The Rangi-Deadman’s Loop track is a 14km line of RWP traps that travels from the Rangiwahia Hut carpark, up to Mangahuia (1500m above sea level) and back down to the carpark. In its first year of operation about 70 stoats were removed from the line’s traps. This is an area that has never been treated with 1080, an area that could justiably be classed as typical Ruahine stoat country.
Each of those dead Mangahuia stoats had to kill a lot of creatures before it died in that single trap that sat on that small piece of dirt on the side of that small but steep mountain. Similar numbers of stoats must be doing the same throughout the rest of the mountainous and largely unprotected Forest Park...the rest of the North Island...the rest of New Zealand. Scientists could possibly make an educated guess at quantifying the country’s stoat population, but it would be pointless.
And that’s only stoats.
I know this isn’t a scientific figure, but there are HEAPS MORE rats in our forests than stoats. To effectively trap rats, traps need to be laid on a closely spaced grid, not along a line. RWP lays its traps in lines at 100 metre intervals along ridges, tracks and rivers. A gridded trap network in Te Ruahine would be the definition of insanity. A gridded trap network placed over 8 million hectares of New Zealand’s roughest and most isolated forests would be...I’d rather try to swim to the moon.
Did I just say “to effectively trap rats”? I’m sorry, I need to explain more. Rats and stoats aren’t stupid. It doesn’t take long for surviving populations to understand what a trap does. The only live stoat I’ve seen in Te Ruahine was standing beside a trap. As I blundered up the path towards it, it assessed the situation and sprung into a well trod tunnel walled with thick grass. It wasn’t tempted by the egg I put in the trap. It wasn’t lying there crushed on my return a couple of hours later. It wasn’t lying there crushed a month later when the trap was rebaited. It knew the trap was dangerous.
Animals become trap shy...as I would if I saw a member of my family crushed to death in a wooden box.
There is no real ability to judge how effective trapping is, but one worrying study of possums, one of the dumbest critters around, puts it as low as 1% effective.
"The way we measure trap effectiveness is by recording how often the trap kills the predator for every time we see one on camera. To date we have been getting a kill rate as low as 1%. For example, we would see 100 possums on camera for every time one would be killed."
Sometimes, when I'm feeling tired, I refer to the work I do in Te Ruahine as "pissing in the wind". It often seems so pointless.
So why do I do it?
You'll have to wait for Part 3.