"I wanna hang a map of the world at my house. Then I wanna stick pins in the locations that I`ve traveled to.
...But first I have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won`t fall down."
-Mitch Hedberg

Friday, May 14, 2010

Possums vs. Birds

The story of our third day in the Abel Tasman actually begins in the middle of the night. Scrounging and snuffling sounds outside the tent woke us up (and by “us” I mean Carolyn).

“What’s that noise?” she whispers. “New Zealand doesn’t have any bears, right? RIGHT?” she pleads.
“I don’t think so…” I mumble (in my sleep).

Then we remembered what it does have...possums.
Not to be confused with the North American opossum (on the left), the New Zealand brushtail possum is less rat-like and more creepy, furry, lemur-like. Here’s some back-story to help explain the possums’ impact on New Zealand:

When New Zealand split from Australia and other parts of ancient Gondwanaland, the small size of the North and South Islands couldn’t support large predators, leading to unique bird evolution. Without the fear of predation, many birds shed their ability to fly and developed thicker, solid bones and sturdy legs to carry them around the ground in search of food.

The most extreme example is the moa, which stood at over two meters tall and was similar to large land birds in other parts of the world like ostriches and the “terror birds” of South America. Sadly, early Maori tribes hunted the moa to extinction around 1500 AD.
Another iconic New Zealand bird is the flightless kiwi. These birds have thick leg bones with marrow in them (in contrast to light hollow bones of other birds), and the tiny vestigial wings hidden at their sides are essentially useless.

The pukeko is a good example of an in-between bird. While still technically capable of flight, its primary response to danger is to run on its speedy, sturdy legs. These bright blue birds are everywhere on the North Island, and when they get startled crossing the road, it’s hilarious to watch them try to run/fly away with their small wings and big, awkward, dangling feet. They can barely clear paddock fences.

These bird populations lived in relative safety for millions of years, but the introduction of new predators like possums, stoats (weasels), and rats to the ancient New Zealand ecosystem has led to a rapid decline in native bird populations. The possum was first introduced to New Zealand by Europeans in the 1800’s to create a fur trading industry, and it bums me out that their greed and thoughtlessness is destroying the present diversity. Possums target the eggs and young of endangered birds like the kiwi and some penguin species, as well as eggs of the now endangered reptile, the tuatara. The response by the government has taken years, but now the verdict is clear - birds get to stay and possums must go.
At first it struck me as odd that possum-hunting is a patriotic duty for New Zealanders. It’s actually disturbing how many possum carcasses I see on the road. However, after our trek through the Abel Tasman National Park, I’m beginning to understand. The native animals are so disadvantaged by these new predators that they depend on a certain amount of human protection, enter the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust.

I looked into it, and there are approximately 30 million possums in New Zealand. That’s how many kiwis used to roam the forests, but now the kiwi population hovers in the low thousands. The fact that kiwis even still exist is only due to extensive efforts by the New Zealand government to establish island sanctuaries and breeding programs. Bottom line, possums are killing the rare and wonderful wildlife that can only be found in New Zealand.

Ok, now back to our second night in the Abel Tasman Park.

When we woke up the next morning, we found that the three tents next to us at the Onetahuti Bay campsite had holes chewed through the sides and any food hidden inside had been snacked on by a sneaky possum. The only reason Care and I escaped unscathed was because we didn’t want trash in our tent so we tied it up and left it outside. The possum tore a hole in that and dined on a banana peel, ignoring our tent and the precious food supply inside. We’re smart as.

Later that morning we discovered that justice had been served – the body of a possum hung limp from a trap only a few feet from our tent. The Birdsong Trust sets hundreds of traps along the trail to protect birds that nest near the coast. It was sad to see an animal get killed for doing what nature dictates it to do – eat – but it’s also nice to see that the native bird populations stand a chance.
I hate that it’s necessary to hunt down and kill the possums because I think they are actually really awesome animals. It’s a sad state of affairs here; the only way to preserve the shrinking diversity is to slaughter innocent animals just trying to survive themselves.

Anyone looking to support the preservation effort and be stylish too can buy “merinomink” or “ecopossum” garments, which are made from a super soft blend of sheep wool and possum fur. Proceeds often go toward groups like the Birdsong Trust, and these groups are making progress - there were 70 million possums during the 1980’s (more than twice the number that exist today). Some shops even sell novelty items like possum fur nipple warmers. Seriously guys, New Zealand is a weird place.

So…sorry about the possum rant, but it’s an important topic to all Kiwis (both the birds and the humans). The next post will be about our 2-day hike back to Marahau. Promise.

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