The Rat Apocalypse in New Zealand

Recently New Zealanders have been
spending their free time doing something unusual. They’re trapping rats. It’s a
common pastime. Rats are an invasive predator in New Zealand. So the country has
come up with an ambitious plan to kill them. All of them. But could this ever
possibly work? The rats that were introduced to New Zealand are just the
rats that we’re all familiar with they have extraordinary senses of smell of
touch. They are incredibly resourceful. which is partly why they’re a problem. Rats were first introduced into the country in the 13th century when they
hitched rides on ships. Before then, the only mammals on the island were tiny
finger-sized bats. Rats are prolific. They breed easily. They get everywhere. They’re very hard to get rid of once they’re in a place. Invasive predators like rats are
a nuisance everywhere But in New Zealand they’re causing an ecological disaster Islands worldwide tend to be hotbeds of
evolution because the animals and plants that find themselves in islands are
separated off from relatives on the mainland and so evolve in their own
weird and wonderful ways. The bird life in New Zealand became incredibly diverse
they are also because of their history exquisitely vulnerable. They are many of
them flightless which means it’s very hard for them to escape or to run away.
Remember these birds evolved without mammalian predators many of them don’t
exist anywhere else in the world. now they’re easy prey for hungry rodents.
They have wiped out around a quarter of New Zealand’s native bird species. The
worry is that if the rat problem is not addressed many more of these unique
species are going to go extinct. With the fate of rare birds like the Kiwi and the
kakapo at stake New Zealand is enacting a radical new plan called “Predator Free
2050.” We want to create a new New Zealand a
safe predator-free sanctuary for our native birds and animals. Predator Free 2050 is New Zealand’s ambitious goal to rid the entire country of introduced
mammalian predators: rats, ferrets, and possums. Currently, New Zealand’s predator-free approach consists of using
pesticides and encouraging citizen trapping but they have a lot of ground
to cover. The largest success story ever for rat eradication has been Macquarie
Island in Australia which is 50 square miles. Now New Zealand is 2,000 times that size. It’s huge. The idea of doing that across an entire country still just
seems like such a monumental task you need to be dropping poisons about the
place, you need to be scouring acres of land looking for signs of rats. In
addition to these grassroots measures they’re considering a revolutionary new
technique. A technique for editing DNA. CRISPR combines with a technology called
gene drives. Gene drives are still in the experimental stage. In simple terms, the
technology implants a specific gene into one generation and ensures its rapid
spread. You could imagine for example spreading a gene through populations of
mosquitoes to make them sterile or in this case through populations of rats to
make them infertile. If this strategy succeeds it could be applied in other
ecosystems and help endangered species rebound around the world but it’s
incredibly risky. The worry is that gene drives are so good at spreading genes across wild populations that it would then be very easy for it to spread
beyond New Zealand’s borders to other parts of the world. What happens
if you wipeout rats from everywhere in the world? Entire food webs might
collapse. But a New Zealand without rats could allow its unique birds to thrive
again. You get to hear birdsong in places that are currently silent. Species that
were on the brink of extinction come back. Near New Zealand’s capital city
there’s 500 acres that are already cause for hope.
It’s called Zealandia. It’s this huge Nature Reserve built this incredible
predator proof fence around and they’ve introduced a ton of birds and you can
walk around and you hear the sounds of all these birds. It gives you a very audible
sense of how much the country is lost and how much it stands to gain. While strides and conservation have been made, there’s more work to be done before CRISPR comes into play. The plan will need political support and a lot of
funding to develop technology to do what’s never been done before.
Until then, rat trapping will remain a popular pastime. Hi everyone, I’m Ed Yong. I work at the Atlantic where I write about science and nature. Thanks for looking at our video, we hope you enjoyed it. Please don’t forget to subscribe to
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