What would it take to make this a predator-free island?

 

Several years back, I made a journey down to Stewart Island. I was very much motivated with a sense of urgency for some reason as if perhaps it was my only chance. In hindsight, this seems rather fatalistic but also practical as we never know when our time will be called.

It helped that I was at a loose end with some weeks leave owed, no cat to house and water and with good summer weather in view for the next few days.

The drive was uneventful, Wellington to Invercargill. I stopped in Christchurch with an old friend, a Police officer who was charged with covert surveillance of the local ‘Boy racer’ community. But that is a story for another day.

Once reaching Invercargill, after a weekend in the Catlins, I parked my trusty Toyota Corolla Mark 2 up and boarded the ferry.

The options for crossing the strait are but two: either stay seated inside or stand outside. I mistakenly chose the former and readied a place for the ride.

After finding the horizon I made sure to keep it in view as the mercifully short journey entered the confusing chorus of the middle strait.

And then sudden change, calm waters, no wind, I was there.

The first thing I noticed was the feeling of abundance. Walking down to the end of the pier I gazed at the multitudes of fish in numbers I had never seen.

I walked up through the town to the Doc office to register my intentions and hopefully find some guidance.

The gentleman in the office was very personable and helpful. He very quickly acclimatised me to a realistic plan of attack for my stay.

One day to Patterson inlet. One day to Maori Beach. And then a short half day back to Oban.

Would there be Kiwis? I hear they come out in the day down here?

Well, possibly.

I shouldered my pack and started off down the four-wheeled drive track southwards.

After several hours I began to doubt myself. The pain in my lazy joints became almost unbearable but the idea of defeat and the inevitable sense of shame this would bring kept me going.

After 5 hours I was on a roll, desperately hoping for the next bend in the track to show me my destination.

But the next turn was obscured by something strange half in the trees and half in view, a deer. It saw me and bounded away, its white underside showing in a flash.

Crikey. I had come down to see a Kiwi but that was pretty impressive.

I then came upon some pretty impressive Matai trees, the kind the loggers could never quite reach.

The huts stay was rather uneventful. The rolling pain in my hips was noticeable, as was the crew of young Brits staying. They went down to the shoreline and gathered up close to 100 pre-mature mussels. About a gold coin size each.  I questioned them as they borrowed my gas cooker (theirs had run out of gas) aren’t they a bit small?

Oh no, these are whoppers back where we’re from.

After turning off my gas cooker which had been left on I retired for the night.

As mentioned my hope on the Island was to see a Kiwi as I had never seen one before. I heard a few during the night in the inlet.

The next day I started early. A saddle track: Fewer than 300 metres but still up and down along the way. I was surprised by the lack of any of the aches I had felt the day before.

I noticed the distinct lack of bird life. There was the odd parakeet along the way but quite desolate when considering the potential for song and life.

This was where those early national heroes from the New Zealand Wildlife Service saved the last of the South Island Saddle Back. Still clinging to barren windswept cliff faces on Big South Cape Island. The last remaining survivors of the plague of rats that spilled down through these islands. From their mooring lines in harbours settled north.

I met some people along the way.

Meeting people along a track is always an interesting experience. Sometimes awkward in that moment of needing to recognise each other’s presence, mercifully most are respectful and courteous.

One person, I remember most for her passion for potential. I mentioned how it would be great if all pests were eradicated from the island and she remarked that never mind the island: what about the entire nation?

While the entire mainland of New Zealand may be a bit much to tackle at the present time let’s look at some numbers for Stewart Island.

There are no Stoats on Stewart Island. There are several varieties of Rat: Norwegian; Black; and the Kiore, brought over by the Maori during the 14th century; as well as Brushtail possum and deer. There is also a more or less sedentary population of Hedge hogs who live in the only settlement of note, Oban.

At Maori Beach, I read a book down by the shoreline until about half eight in the evening. Full moon with southern twilight does wonders for the eyes.  I kept wondering about the practicalities of creating the largest and perhaps most significant predator-free sanctuary in this part of the world.

What would it take? How many years? Is it possible? Well, anything is possible.

As I made my way back into Oban I passed beneath the chains connected with the anchor. A very clever and fitting piece of artwork we are very fortunate to have been given.

For this is our anchor, fixed firmly in the Furious Fifties, an echo of these islands past, Rakiura, a link to our past.

What would it take to make this island predator-free?

Two things that I can see: a will and a way.

The way would comprise of a small and dedicated team with the practical measuring tools to do the job. Perhaps several years would be enough to fully trap and snare the island’s total of 1,746 square kilometres. We are after all a fairly feisty bunch down these parts that, when given a task, carry it out with all efficiency and means at our disposal.

But then comes the difficult part: maintaining the integrity on an ongoing basis. After all, rats can swim. A long way as it happens.

There would need to be a full maritime exclusion zone around the island which would need to be enforced routinely and without bias. This I believe would be the most difficult aspect of this project.

But what an amazing project it would be.

No doubt the economic value of such an endeavour would more than pay for its upkeep, especially given its rarity of life and influence on the ongoing conservation efforts within New Zealand.

Imagine being able to experience the kind of dawn chorus heard hundreds of years ago?

This project is one that cannot be ignored by successive governments. It will require significant buy-in from not only the various human interests on the island but also the wider population as a whole in order to create an Ark in the Southern Ocean for our children and their children to come.

 


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