Predator Free 2050: A flawed conservation policy

  • 30 May 2019
  • Matt Vincent

Credit Wayne Linklater & Jamie Steer, link to full original article below.

Predator Free 2050: A flawed conservation policy displaces higher priorities and better, evidence‐based alternatives


New Zealand's policy to exterminate five introduced predators by 2050 is well‐meant but warrants critique and comparison against alternatives. The goal is unachievable with current or near‐future technologies and resources. Its effects on ecosystems and 26 other mammalian predators and herbivores will be complex. Some negative outcomes are likely. Predators are not always and everywhere the largest impact on biodiversity. Lower intensity predator suppression, habitat protection and restoration, and prey refugia will sometimes better support threatened biodiversity. The policy draws attention to where predators are easily killed, not where biodiversity values are greatest. Pest control operations are already contested and imposing the policy is likely to escalate those conflicts. While “high‐profile,” a focus on predator eradication obscures the fact that indigenous habitat cover and quality continues to decline. Thus, the policy is flawed and risks diverting effort and resources from higher environmental priorities and better alternatives. Biodiversity conservation policies should be guided by cost‐benefit analyses, prioritization schemes, and conservation planning in an adaptive management framework to deliver nuanced outcomes appropriate to scale‐ and site‐specific variation in biodiversity values and threats. The success of biodiversity sanctuary‐“spillover” landscapes, habitat restoration, and metapopulation management provide the foundation to build a better policy.


New Zealand's (NZ's) government has launched the world's largest mammal eradication––to exterminate stoats (Mustela erminea), brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), and rats (Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus, Rattus exulans) from the entire country by 2050 (Owens, 2017). The species targeted by the Predator Free 2050 policy (Bell, 2016, p. 110) impact biodiversity on the world's islands, especially NZ's (Jones et al., 2016). The policy identifies potential social and economic benefits too (e.g., public engagement in conservation, sustaining natural capital). Island eradications have occurred globally (Jones et al., 2016) and NZ is a world leader in the practice (Russell & Broome, 2016). The attempt will therefore be keenly watched and potentially emulated by other countries.

Regarded as audacious and aspirational, the policy attracted widespread attention in international media (Anonymous, 2016; Owens, 2017). Critique, however, especially of its scientific support, has been limited. This is surprising because the policy appears to be flawed on multiple levels: technical, financial, social, ecological, and ethical. Although well‐meant, the high‐profile policy may direct attention and effort away from higher biodiversity priorities and alternative policies better supported by science, lower‐risk and more suited to the biodiversity conservation capacity and needs of NZ.


The world will be watching NZ with interest as its Predator Free 2050 policy is implemented. It will likely prove a useful case study in the interaction between science, government, and communities for other nations to consider when deciding how to design and implement biodiversity policy. Unfortunately, it is already clear that the policy has not been well informed by scientific knowledge or conservation best practice. It also misdirects attention from more fundamental and direct threats to biodiversity protection and recovery.

While predator control and exclusion remains a necessary part of biodiversity conservation in NZ, the nationwide eradication of predators is not. And if biodiversity recovery is our ultimate goal then predator eradication is secondary to the need for somewhere for biodiversity to live. Supported by modern socio‐ecological theory and practice, NZ's biodiversity goals (Norton et al., 2016) could be better achieved with a less extreme (i.e., less costly and lower risk), and more nuanced and multifaceted policy. That policy would use existing, proven technologies and strategies, and be guided by scale‐ and context‐dependent cost‐benefit analyses and prioritization schemes (Helmstedt et al., 2016; Parkes & Nugent, 1995), and incorporate decision theory (Driscoll et al., 2010), conservation planning (Margules & Pressey, 2000; McIntosh, Pressey, Lloyd, Smith, & Grenyer, 2017), and adaptive management (Doherty & Ritchie, 2017; Parkes, Robley, Forsyth, & Choquenot, 2006).

Biodiversity recovery requires different strategies in different places, at different scales, in different communities of people, and at different times. Protecting some species from introduced predators will likely remain a focus of conservation in NZ's biodiversity sanctuaries. That focus, however, must not detract from other biodiversity conservation priorities at the national scale, including the pressing need to protect and grow habitat. While Predator Free 2050 is well intentioned, NZ's future conservation policies need to be less bombastic, and better informed by the environmental, ecological, and social sciences.

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