The tales of Storky, Kinky and Razza

    37

    We’ve had Storky, the famously cute baby dotterel who survived storms, off-leash dogs and prowling cats; now there’s Kinky, another pint-sized Waiheke resident who rates an article in Stuff – this one under the headline Wily Waiheke rat outwits eradicators, caught on tape living rent-free in a roof cavity. 

    As rats love to scoff ground-nesting birds and their eggs and chicks, including rare New Zealand dotterels like Storky, Kinky the rat has a target on his back, and that’s fine with me. 

    Waiheke Island pest eradicators Te Korowai O Waiheke are in hot pursuit of the rodent, and I am confident they will catch him. In 2022, they de-ratted much of Ostend in the first trial of its kind in the world to eliminate rats from such an urban environment. By week 10 of a planned 18-week Oneroa trial, things were looking just as good. “No bait was taken in a one-week period from the 1670 bait stations placed across Oneroa,” wrote Stuff journalist Erin Johnson in her story about the rat.

    Te Korowai O Waiheke’s rat operations manager Owain Tanner was initially skeptical, said Johnson, when an Oneroa resident reported a rat in their roof. But cameras confirmed the rat, a lone outlaw with a kink in his tail now known as Kinky. 

    “When you get a low population their behaviour changes,” Tanner told Johnson. “The remnants of the population are the most difficult to catch.”

    Razza, a rat infamous in the annals of pest eradication, would agree.

    Razza’s tale begins with James Russell, an ecology graduate student who released radio-collared rats on tiny islands off the New Zealand coast to study their behaviour, reassuring his supervisors that the genetically fingerprinted rats would be carefully monitored, and easily caught.

    But one rat, nicknamed Razza, went rogue, evading capture for months and swimming over 400 metres to a nearby island. After 10 weeks, Razza’s radio signal was lost. Russell thought his PhD was on the rocks. After a mortifying search lasting 18 weeks, the rat was finally caught, using meat from the carcass of a penguin which had washed ashore.  

    The intentions of the rat,” notes Russell’s Wikipedia page, “are believed to have been amorous.” Razza was probably in search of a mate. 

    The chase for the lusty rat had not only taught Russell something quite new about rat behaviour, but it had also refined his rat-catching techniques. Russell’s paper on Razza made it all the way to the international science journal Nature.

    “The exceptional difficulty of this capture indicates that methods normally used to eradicate rats in dense populations are unlikely to be effective on small numbers,” Russell’s team concluded in their paper.

    Razza became famous, even starring in a children’s book by Witi Ihimaera. And Russell earned his PhD on the genetics and invasion ecology of rats.

    In 2015 it was Russell’s team which estimated a scheme to rid Aotearoa of rats, brushtail possums and stoats by 2050 should cost around $9 billion. Savings to pest-control programmes, reduction to environmental damage, ecological slaughter and crop losses would justify the expense. “Our government just grabbed that paper, and the surrounding evidence and public goodwill, and announced this policy,” Russell told Nature in a subsequent article. “It’s been pretty hectic here ever since.”

    Russell, now a professor at the University of Auckland, is a strategic advisor to Predator Free New Zealand.

    In a 2014 New Yorker piece: The Big Kill: New Zealand’s crusade to rid itself of mammals, American writer Elizabeth Kolbert describes meeting Russell, and being impressed when he got an email from Brazil: “The government wanted to hire him to help it get rid of rats on the Fernando de Noronha archipelago. David Bellamy, the British environmentalist and television personality, has observed that New Zealand is the only country in the world that has succeeded in turning pest eradication into an export industry.” 

    In the past few decades, Kolbert wrote, New Zealand has “cleared mammalian predators from a 117 offshore islands. The earliest efforts involved tiny specks, like Mokopuna, which is about the size of Gramercy Park. But, more recently, they’ve successfully de-ratted much larger islands, like Campbell, which is the size of Nantucket.”

    South Georgia Island, a mountainous British territory in the South Atlantic with an area of more than 3,500 km2, was declared rat free in 2018. In a story about this feat in Science magazine, a familiar name crops up.

    “James Russell, a conservation biologist at The University of Auckland in New Zealand… says the South Georgia project’s ‘stepwise’ approach could make New Zealand’s [predator free] goal “more technically feasible”; the country could eliminate predators from multiple isolated regions over time, rather than trying to do whole islands at once.” 

    Like South Georgia, Waiheke will one day be rat free. And our island is just a stepping stone.

    “Wouldn’t it be great if New Zealand had birds everywhere and we didn’t have to worry about rats?” Russell told Nature. “That’s the world I imagine.” • Jenny Nicholls

    Subscribe and read Gulf News and Waiheke Weekender Online