September 10, 2018
Issue 10 2018

The 1080 Debate

It’s been a big thing lately, mass aerial drops of poison throughout ol’ Aotearoa. In case you’re not familiar, 1080 (said as ten-eighty) is the common name given to the chemical compound sodium monofluoroacetate. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I intend to demystify the rampant opinions and actual scientific research that is behind the 1080 debate.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) is responsible for 1080 distribution in the New Zealand wilderness. And by golly they have copped a lot of flak for their use of the poison in the past half century. You can look at it like this. In the past, native fauna was removed from Whenua Hou Nature Reserve (Codfish Island) in preparation for an aerial 1080 drop on the area to eradicate the Pacific Rat. It was declared a success. The rats did not return and have not since. Even better, Whenua Hou is now one of the few places in the world where you’ll find kakapo in the wild (well, as wild as the critically endangered parrots can be). It has, however, taken almost 20 years for the reptile populations to climb back up in numbers. The Jewelled Gecko, Rainbow Skink and Southern Skink were all once found on Whenua Hou, and while they still are, but sightings are rare.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the controversy surrounding whether 1080 has ended up in our drinking water. This has been a concern for many living in areas of the West Coast of the South Island, where several aerial drops have taken place over the past decade. In 2009, a Stuff article stated that at least two pregnant women were advised to leave the town of Karamea if the scheduled drop was to take place due to the potential presence of 1080 in the water supply. This was, however, the medical opinion of one professional in one town of our one country. That’s not to say it has no validity, but my point is that this is exactly how misinformation spreads - suddenly this potential bit of ammunition became a full-blown fact that skim-readers began to use to enhance their arguments.

There are huge benefits to the use of 1080 for pest control but bear in mind that Whenua Hou is not inhabited by humans. Yes, rangers and scientists spend stints there for research and conservation purposes, but it is not a residence. Many of the issues lie in concerns about human health in poisoned areas. And there is the potential for 1080 to get into the water supply of rural areas. And if you are one of those people, you’re entitled to bottled water. A bait drop was done on the Hunua Ranges in 2016, and while water sampled from the potentially contaminated waterways came back negative for 1080, the sample was taken some 24 hours after the drop, whereas accurate samples can only be obtained no more than eight hours after the drop, according to some sources. Research surrounding many of these aerial drops is skewed and favours continued 1080 use, tests showing the lack of 1080 in the water rather than the presence of it.

So, here’s a big question. What about secondary poisoning? An inconclusive study was conducted in 1999 on native ants. The idea was that poisoned invertebrates could be eaten by predatory reptiles or birds, both native and non-native species, thereby causing secondary poisoning. The study, however, had some confounding variables, as there is always the possibility that the ants did not find particular bait forms palatable. To know which forms these are was a key aspect, as it could help localize the poisoned populations; make it only palatable to mammals. There again, we have bats, our only native land mammal, who may also eat the poison if mammals favoured it.

DoC have explained the measured use of this poison on their Fake 1080 News page. They state that by dying the baits green and scenting them with cinnamon, birds are unlikely to consume them while mammals will. They have also reduced their sow rate to 1-3kg of baits per hectare. The Department of Conservation isn’t full of blithering idiots, but perhaps some care could be taken post-drop. They also claim that birdlife has improved in many areas after a 1080 drop, while several public groups claim that the forests no longer sing since DoC began using the poison.

In a film by The Graf Boys (check out their Facebook) there is mention of carrot baits used as well as cereal ones. While special research has gone into the development of cereal baits to deter our native animals, a carrot is a carrot. Any hungry herbivore or omnivore would eat these baits – hence, they have not been received well. The lack of control over the distribution of aerial baits (usually cereal) means that they end up scattered across a region. This often includes farmland and waterways as well as native forests. You see the issue here: livestock, horses and companion animals have been reported to have died of 1080-related illness. It is the flippant nature of aerial drops that means baits don’t always go where intended.

Newshub’s Patrick Gower recently reported 75kg of 1080 pellets had been dumped in the Rakiura National Park. He digs and stamps his boot into the moss of a swamp, where underneath the pale green of 1080 baits are visible. This dump was not made directly by DoC, but by a contractor who evidently had no moral compass about the job. After the death of a kiwi on Stewart Island was blamed on 1080, guilt revealed the culprit. Isaac, who worked for Tony Leith at the time, had his small part in the 1080 dump. He felt guilty after hearing of the poisoned kiwi and had to speak out. Note that there was no correlation made between the dead kiwi and this particular bait-dump, but the death was, apparently, caused by 1080 poison. With this incident making national news, 1080 is under much scrutiny by the public and DoC is inclined to take extra precautions with their distributions and contractors.

You need only type “1080” into the Facebook search bar to see a wealth of results showing extremist groups pointing a middle finger at DoC. On these energetic forums and pages, you will find absolute slander of DoC, our government, any individual who supports 1080 and, if I’m being totally honest, a huge amount of misinformation and fear-mongering. Fears expressed on these forums are valid, however few angry anti-1080 posters can back their claims up with evidence. Social media is a marvelous way for humans to inconsequentially express themselves and mercilessly tear others down (I know, it’s happened to me), but it is exactly that: inconsequential. Until it’s not. One high-profile example of 1080 terrorism was the case of Jeremy Hamish Kerr. In 2016, he threatened Fonterra and Federated Farmers with a sample of baby formula that had been laced with high 1080 concentrations. Kerr didn’t believe he would be taken seriously, but his accompanying letter declared he would distribute these poisoned samples to the dairy giant’s Asian market. This threat resulted in Kerr’s eight-and-a-half-year incarceration. It appears the New Zealand judiciary system takes such threats very seriously.

Among threats and bigots, there is the sweet reprieve of cold and calculated scientific research. These experiments haven’t stopped since New Zealand started dropping 1080, and the research is ongoing. But so are the drops, and they have increased with the introduction of ‘Predator Free 2050’ as a goal for this century (regardless of its seeming un-attainability for many observers). Whether or not this will have a large impact on native wildlife in a positive or negative way is uncertain, given the facts. Studies point towards 1080 as a solution, and as a potential threat to our fauna. There is no right or wrong answer, rather 1,080 shades of grey.

Now, this is an opinion piece, so here’s mine: it is perhaps not the poison itself that is the bigger issue here, but the attitude surrounding it. Being overzealous with 1080 distribution makes our wilderness a predator. Monitored use of it could have a very long-term, in-the-distant-future, positive effect on our wilderness – but at what cost? Accidental poisoning is a real consideration. I’m no scientist, but there must be a better way. Perhaps a bit of funding can be put towards alternative methods such as sterilization of predatory mammals – but it’s never so simple. Possums were born to succeed, and for the last century and a half, they’ve done exactly that. It was always going to be a harsh, drastic solution to eradicate our little nation of such excellent and adaptable animals. Then there’s the rest of them. Maybe one day bats will, once again, be Aotearoa’s only terrestrial mammal. We’ll see.

But if we’re being frank here, I’d say people are the more destructive predatory mammals.

What do you reckon?

If you’re keen for some more info, check out www.1080facts.co.nz. There are also plenty of other resources out there.