Conservation was in the news again in the last few weeks here in New Zealand, and unfortunately not in a good way. The subject is one that comes up a lot in this blog and other bird blogs, the subject of cats and their effect on wildlife.

As most people know cats, both feral and domestic, have a pretty big impact on wild birds and other wildlife, and the effect of mammals is particularly profound in New Zealand. Cats, along with other introduced mammals, are genuinely a problem in New Zealand in a way they aren’t in most of the rest of the world (Australia has similar problems mostly with foxes and cats). And New Zealand has a fairly aggressive programme of conservation measures in place to protect native wildlife by killing native species, again something I have defended on this site.

That said, I have not been impressed by a New Zealand economist, Gareth Morgan, calling for New Zealand to wipe out cats. Why? Well, cats are a problem, no question, and ultimately wiping out non native predators would be a great thing for the wildlife here. The important word in that sentence, however, is ultimately. The road to a pest free New Zealand is going to be a long one, requiring massive investment, political will and social cooperation. Even wiping out a majority of mammals from the third biggest island is a challenge, and not just logistically. We are certainly many years away from being able to undertake a feat of that magnitude on one of the two main islands. Even wiping out one species, like possums, or stoats, or hedgehogs is probably beyond current methods. It is certainly at this point beyond the means of a nation struggling as most are in a sluggish world economy.

Given the generational battle that will have to be waged, just about the worst thing you can do is alienate half the nation by firing indiscriminate broadsides at what to most people is a cherished family member. Yes, Gareth Morgan’s position, when examined beyond attention grabbing headlines is a great deal more nuanced that headlines might suggest. He isn’t arguing that the state should impose this, he’s arguing that we should act collectively. He isn’t arguing against cats kept in the home, and he is right in my mind to blast the SPCA for doing trap neuter release in New Zealand (something I wasn’t aware anyone was stupid enough to think was a good idea here). But what he hasn’t achieved is making New Zealand’s birds any more safe from cats, what he has done is make New Zealanders who might have felt good about conservationists feel hostile towards them instead. It’s undermined his own laudable efforts to clear the Antipodes of mice.

There is, sometimes, a self defeating tendency in conservation and environmentalism where people would rather attempt to reach an unobtainable pure position than get a muddy but obtainable compromise. But there is no glory in defeat in these fights, and we should aim to get the best we can achieve. Conservationists must be pragmatists. There is nothing wrong with aiming high, so long as it doesn’t undermine your chances of getting the best realistic result. In shooting off his mouth and going for an unobtainable goal I fear that Gareth Morgan has done much more harm than good.

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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.