28 Jan 2015

Scientist hunts the hunters

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 28 January 2015
Mick Clout holding a young male kakapo on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island in December 2014.

Mick Clout handling an as yet unnamed young male kakapo on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island in December 2014. Photo: Mick Clout

Mick Clout is on a mission. He admits it may sound impossible, but he reckons with a bit of help we can say goodbye to the possum and other introduced predators.

Clout, a professor of Conservation Ecology at the University of Auckland, knows what he is talking about. He was recently awarded the 2014 Marsden Medal by NZ Association of Scientists for his lifetime contribution.

See photographs of Mick Clout's work in the field.

A vertebrate ecologist, he specialises in the ecology and behaviour of native birds such as the kereru, kakapo and morepork and the introduced pests that threaten them: possums, mustelids and rats. He loves what he does.

Clout said the kakapo, he has chaired the Kakapo Recovery Group for 20 years, was a great example of a species that had really recovered thanks to efforts to eradicate pests.

“I feel so privileged to work with kakapo, they are an iconic species, and real characters.”

A possum feeding from a ‘Spitfire’ device attached to a tree.

A possum feeding from a ‘Spitfire’ device attached to a tree. The possum is attracted by a bait/lure and is sprayed on its chest with a toxic gel when it stands in this way on the platform. When the possum later grooms this gel from its fur it receives a toxic dose, which kills it quickly. (Photo taken in Canterbury, April 2013 by Helen Blackie). Photo: Helen Blackie

Clout said the idea of a predator free country may seem like an impossible task, but if everyone got on board it was achievable. Possums would be his first target.

“Start at the top and work down.  Possums only got to Northland in the 1990s, and Auckland city makes  a very good predator proof fence protecting Northland.”

Professor Clout said the eradication would need to involve use of all the tools available: 1080, other poisons, trapping and the Spitfire system, where a spray gel containing zinc phosphide is applied to the possum's abdomen when it stands on an activated platform.

The possums then ingest this paste through grooming. The Spitfire device only triggers when an animal above a set weight stands on the platform, so that other wildlife are not poisoned.

He said it may seem like a pipe dream, but with the right efforts, by 200th anniversary of Treaty of Waitangi in 2040, the country could be free of introduced predators.

He explains his vision to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon.