1080 reasons for optimism

Photo overlooking Mount Summers (Jan 2022). Image by Chida Chapagain.

It’s good to be optimistic. I have always been hopeful about the future. I lived the first 11 years of my life in a refugee camp. Times were tough, but I knew things could only get better. Even as a child, I knew there was more to this world than what I had experienced.

Fast forwards a couple of years, and my family and I are living in New Zealand, happier than ever. The first 11 years in Nepal, compared to my last 11 years here in New Zealand, have been extremely different. My life changed for the better.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my family had moved to America or Australia instead of New Zealand. I often catch myself saying, “maybe my life would have been even better?” Optimism combined with curiosity can be a powerful motivator, leading us to explore the unknown. But we must be realistic with our expectations. Just because we are optimistic about the unknown doesn’t mean it must be true. There will always be challenges and limitations. Nothing is, or will ever be, perfect. 

The same applies to alternative pest control methods being developed in New Zealand. The pest control toxin 1080 has its concerns, as do alternative methods that have been or are being developed. 1080 is a fully developed method that has been repeatedly shown to control introduced pest mammal populations on a large scale.

The common brushtail possum (Sept 2010). Photo by Daniela Parra from Flickr.

While it may not be perfect, it is widely recognised among scientists and conservationists that 1080 is currently the best tool we have for pest control. The use of 1080 is essential in protecting our native flora and fauna. However, we should always be looking to make improvements, but until such progress is made, the use of 1080 must continue. Perhaps you’ve read other things about 1080 and don’t agree. Allow me to explain.

Bruce Warburton, Penny Fisher, Brian Hopkins, Graham Nugent, and Phil E. Cowan of Manakai Whenua Lanacare Reserach, along with James Ross of Lincoln University, outline the major areas of concern raised by 1080 and summarise the changes that have been made to the use of 1080 to address these concerns.

The main four concerns related to the use of 1080 have been:

  1. the potential environmental and human health risks,
  2. the limited control over where the bait lands when applied aerially,
  3. the lack of species selectivity, and
  4. the animal welfare impact on target and non-target species.

They explore the impacts of 1080 use for conservation and bovine tuberculosis (TB) control. They then summarise alternative toxicants and methods for mammal pest control being investigated in New Zealand. Then they address to what extent these alternative methods might be able to address the concerns raised by 1080 opponents. This article may alter your views on 1080.

1080 is the current best tool we have for our unique fauna!

Sodium fluoroacetate (1080) has been a recognised pesticide since the early 1940s. 1080 is most frequently mixed into cereal baits for possum and ship rat control. New Zealand is the world’s largest user of 1080. The extensive use of 1080 in New Zealand is made possible by our unique fauna, where we have 35 introduced mammal species and only two native terrestrial mammals (both bats).

Introduced mammals, such as rats, possums, and stoats, are widespread and have significant impacts on native biodiversity and/or agricultural production. They continue to damage and threaten native and endemic species at unacceptably high rates.

Māori believe ‘failure to act falls short of our responsibilities to our ancestors, and future generations’. Fortunately, 1080 is a very efficient method for pest control. Monitoring by the Department of Conservation (DOC) before and after aerial 1080 operations targeting possums, rodents, and stoats has repeatedly shown consistent benefits for nesting success in kiwi, kea, kaka, whio, pīwauwau, mohua, and tītitipounamu. O’Donnell and Hoare in 2012 found native bird populations to have doubled after more than 20 years of sustained predator control. 

North Island Saddleback (Oct 2021). Photo by Geoff Mckay from Flickr.

Are the ‘concerns’ about 1080 fact or evidence-based?

There are concerns and opposition to the use of 1080. Some are evidence-based. 1080 does kill non-target species. According to Dave Hansford, about 12% of radio-tagged kea died after aerial 1080 operations. In 1970, there was a ministerial review of the properties, effectiveness, and regulatory control of 1080. The review supported the use of 1080 but also recommended areas for improvement. Most of these recommendations were implemented, but opposition to its use remained.

In 2006, there was another formal assessment of 1080. Once again, the use of 1080 was permitted. 1080 opponents were still outraged. This triggered another investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), who is tasked with providing independent advice to the government. The PCE concluded that “not only should the use of 1080 continue, but that we should use more of it.” Justified concerns about 1080 have been thoroughly reviewed many times, and these reviews have refined the ways in which 1080 is used safely to benefit the NZ environment. The remaining strong opposition to 1080 use by some New Zealanders has required that a lot of time and money being spent on developing, testing, and registering alternatives to 1080. 

What are these alternative pest control methods?

There are many alternative methods for pest control. However, many of these are not feasible for our unique situation. For example, shooting is not a viable method for small mammals like mice and rats, and it is too expensive to apply on a large scale. Trapping, similarly is not cost-effective for large-scale operations, especially in the more remote, mountainous parts of New Zealand. Although these methods can complement 1080, they cannot achieve the levels required for effective large-scale conservation. New toxins, including zinc phosphide, sodium nitrate, coumatetrayl, and diphacinone, have also been registered for use. However, none have been developed for aerial use.

Genetic methods have the potential to drastically reduce the population of mammalian pests. There is a lot of attention on “gene drives”, which are engineered using the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology. The gene drive DNA sequence, typically for reduced fertility, is then interwoven into the genome of an individual organism of the pest species, and every offspring of that individual inherits this modified DNA. One individual with this deleterious gene could potentially lead to complete eradication. This is the most promising alternative to 1080 in terms of cost and efficacy. There is, however, be significant scientific and public scrutiny to be done on this method.

In the meantime, our birds are continuing to be eaten by pest mammals.

My final thoughts

Having lived in both Nepal and New Zealand, I have been able to witness many beautiful birds. Nepal is home to the Himalayan Monal, which is my favourite. I vividly remember chasing this colourful bird around as a child. New Zealand is also home to many beautiful birds. We cherish these birds; they are part of us. However, today, many of them face the risk of extinction.

I am not an expert in pest control, but, I understand that without pest control, conservation programmes would fail. Reviews after reviews have shown that 1080 is the best current pest control method we have for introduced predatory mammals (possums, mice, rats, stoats, weasels) in New Zealand. Until we have better options, we need to continue using the best tools because our endangered endemic species cannot wait. We are lucky to have a pest control method that has proven to be so effective. It’s good to be optimistic.

The author Chida Chapagain is a postgraduate student in the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science taught at Lincoln University. This article was written as an assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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