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New Zealand's famous Kiwi bird

An ambitious plan to rid New Zealand of all non-native predators was announced with much fanfare by Prime Minister John Key in late July. The Predator Free New Zealand 2050 target will take particular aim at rats, stoats and possums, responsible for killing an estimated 25 million native birds and causing NZ$3.3 billion in damage a year. New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to set such aggressive timelines for the elimination of all introduced predators.

Conservationists have been growing increasingly concerned that New Zealand’s unique ecology is under threat from outside predators, with populations of the iconic flightless Kiwi plummeting. “Now is the time for a concerted, long-term, nationwide effort to rid ourselves of the introduced [mammals] that have placed so much of our natural heritage in jeopardy,” said New Zealand conservation minister Maggie Barry in a statement.

The country, already spending about NZ$40 million a year on eradication measures, has enjoyed some success in removing predators from the country’s island nature reserves, such as mice on Antipodes Island. The core of the new funding will be placed into a new public-private partnership named Predator Free New Zealand Limited. While some of the eradication efforts will include existing technologies, government officials concede that significant technological innovation will be required to reach the 2050 benchmark in time.

Notably absent from the announcement was any discussion of non-native species maintained as pets by New Zealanders, in particular cats. The country has one of the highest cat-ownership rates in the world, and cats are regularly identified as one of the biggest threats to native bird species. The connection between cat ownership and conservation has become a political hot-button issue in recent years, after a campaign was started in 2013 by well-known economist and environmental activist Gareth Morgan promoting a vision of an (eventual) cat-free New Zealand. Morgan’s campaign also took aim at New Zealand’s massive feral cat population, which one estimate pegged at 2.4 million.

When questioned about the role cats will play in the 2050 target, the prime minister referenced his cat, Moonbeam Smokey Fluffy Key, in reassuring the general public. “If you’re asking about Moonbeam, Moonbeam is safe,” Key said to reporters. “If you’re asking about feral cats … then their time is limited.”

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