Time to think about kea
(Published in Greymouth Star 3/9/19)
By Dr Jo Pollard, BSc (Hons), PhD
The kea, NZ’s unique mountain parrot, needs urgent consideration. This spring, poisonous food baits are being spread by air over of much its habitat by the Department of Conservation (DoC). Twelve per cent of resident kea are expected to die within a few days of the poisoning, according to DoC’s studies. Debilities such as damaged wing muscles and reproductive defects are expected in those that are sub-lethally poisoned.
Thus the few (possibly 1000-3000 ) remaining kea in NZ face major genetic loss and suffering. DoC needs a strong argument to justify this mayhem.
DoC has taken to sheltering behind pro-poisoning freelance journalist Dave Hansford. Recently, Hansford repeated DoC’s message to the public that kea will be better off after poisoning. He argues that filling our forests with toxin will stop stoats from ravaging kea nests. Hansford went on to soften us up claiming that a death rate of up to 22% of kea will be ok this spring – by DoC’s reckoning.
Ever since DoC finally recorded that many kea were dying in aerial poison drops (as people had been telling them for decades) it has been on a desperate search for evidence that poisoning somehow benefits kea, in an attempt to prove that these awful losses might be somehow justified.
DoC chose to argue that stoats endanger kea and that poison will solve this. But DoC’s own scientists, and research before them, had already concluded that stoats were not a problem to kea.
In vain, DoC has been trying to amass evidence that stoats are endangering kea. DNA tests, attempts to analyse bite marks and thousands of hours of videos of kea nests have yielded very little. This is despite the videoed nests being made known and vulnerable to any predators, by disturbing the birds thoroughly (including volunteers, dogs and others hunting for nests; visiting repeatedly; taking blood samples; marking sites; attaching harnesses to adults and chicks.)
But Hansford says there is evidence that 1080 helps kea; in a paper written by DoC staff, published 2018. That document rests its case on an experiment in Westland, which DoC had previously self-criticised as unreplicated and lacking objectivity! Not only is the study unscientific, the results are presented in a fraudulent manner. A stoat plague that followed aerial poisoning at Okarito, shown in the original report, was truncated from the published graph!
Another incorrect statement, repeated by DoC, Hansford and other poison supporters is that kea in remote areas, that are unfamiliar with people and being fed, will be relatively safe in poisoning operations. DoC’s own results do not support this: 9% of monitored kea died at Kahurangi, a site chosen by DoC for its remoteness.
Kea are in fact extremely curious and resourceful regarding food, willing to try anything. This trait is thought by scientists to be a response to living in a very challenging nutritional environment, where starvation typically kills off many juveniles in an average year, as well as many adults in poor seasons.
Before poisoning, “pre-feeding” with normal, unpoisoned baits is carried out to build up animals’ confidence. This will encourage kea to eat the bait regardless of their background. In this year’s toxic deluge, some baits will be coated with blood, in an attempt to repel deer. This practice is normally prohibited in kea habitat because it is likely to attract kea even more.
DoC pretends that aerially spreading 1080 poison is good at controlling pests. The truth is mice don’t normally eat it, rat numbers often rebound ferociously, and stoat numbers can escalate when either of these previous two rodents flourish. DoC’s (and pest control company ZIP’s) response to this is to use more dense, and more frequent poisoning. This is madness when up against the rat, considered by at least one biologist to be so hardy that it will be the last animal on earth when all else is gone.
DoC also pretends that 1080 poison doesn’t kill many animals other than the ones it wants dead. The toxin interferes with respiration so it affects all creatures that breathe air. Kea are one of very few native animals whose deaths have been monitored with any reliability. The death toll of many other creatures may also be large.
Entomologist Mike Meads found severe effects on invertebrates, in a study that was initially supported by peer reviews but later discredited by DoC, and which has never been followed up with a comprehensive, replicated trial. A study on stream invertebrates also showed negative effects of 1080 but was also never followed up. Fernbirds died at a rate of 9.4% per poison drop. Kakariki parakeets are known to be killed in 1080 operations yet, incredibly, the baits are to be sown at double density where the last remaining orange-fronted kakariki in Canterbury are clinging to existence (only 100-300 birds left).
What benefits will there be from spreading 1080? Poisoning documentation for the Arthurs Pass area states “the overall net effect on the ecosystem will be one of profound benefit”. Not surprisingly this claim is unreferenced! DoC has scrambled for credibility recently and published several studies (on birds), which all suffer from poor scientific methodology and fall well short of demonstrating overall benefit to any species, let alone ecosystem-level benefits.
Kea expert Paul van Klink complained last year that there was no management plan for kea and that DoC and its volunteers were knowingly killing kea in traps set for stoats. Further investigations by reporter David Williams painted “a picture of a department that is unsure of the risks, or efficacy, of the traps it’s using, managers that make decisions while seemingly ignorant of trap trial results, and decisions being made about positioning traps seemingly with little scientific basis.”
So the senseless, science-less poisoning is only one symptom of DoC’s incompetent management.
Thinking people need to stop swallowing the outrageous propaganda emanating from DoC, and look at how things stack up for the kea. It is currently facing an extremely bleak future.