New Zealand has just come close to a cataclysmic mass cull of its tahr herd. Byron Pace uncovers how these plans came about and how they were stopped at the last minute

When I flew to New Zealand two months ago, I couldn’t have anticipated what would unfold in the weeks after my return. I had been surprised by what I had found there, as I tried to uncover the reality of the country I had been fortunate to have been invited to hunt in. Joseph Peters, my host, had open my eyes to the history of game in NZ, and the difficulties the country faced when it came to sensible management of all their species. As I experienced with Joseph, and then Kuran Ireland in the last few days of my trip, the hunting in NZ can be incredible. Done right, it will blow your mind. However, it is a complicated story and not necessarily everything which is portrayed to the outside world.

It would be hard not to have heard what has been going on in NZ with regard to their tahr herd in the last few weeks. It has been well publicised on social media and has grabbed an impressive amount of attention from the global hunting community. By complete chance, the film I made while in NZ was finished around the same time and couldn’t have been more appropriate to the issues at hand. The film, The Rise and Fall of a Mountain King, was viewed more than 40,000 times on Facebook in just three days, and shared hundreds of time across the world. This gives you an idea just how connected people from every corner of the planet felt about the issue.

The situation is fluid, and in between writing this article and seeing Sporting Rifle in print, I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation has developed further. But I will try to lay out what we know so far, and where we are at the time of writing.

Hunters need to have a stake in the future of NZ’s wildlife

To put this together I read the material put out by the NZ Tahr Foundation (which I urge you to follow and support), and took the time to speak with friends over there, and interview Greg Duley, editor of NZ Hunter Magazine.

Here’s what we established:

Tahr are not a native species. As with many of the animals in New Zealand, tahr were introduced. As a result, the habitat hadn’t evolved to cope with the continual browsing of such species. It is argued that the long extinct Moa (a large flightless bird) did graze heavily across all of NZ, and today this pressure has been replaced by deer, tahr and other introduced browsers and grazers. Of course, every animal has different habits, and the long and short of it is that research does certainly show that tahr, in the densities they are currently found, can have detrimental impacts on native habitat. This is particularly true in fragile, slower-growing alpine environments, where the consequences of overpopulation are seen more starkly.

Though not all Kiwi hunters would have agreed historically that a balance must be obtained, I think recent events have added some clarity and focus to the task at hand. The bottom line is, if the NZ people want to hold on to and benefit from their non-native resources, they need to be managed and monitored. Of course, those responsible need to be allowed to do this, and be invited to the table to help implement plans, and this is the primary reason for the uproar we have seen now. There simply was a lack of consultation with stakeholders when it came to drawing up cull plans.

At the start of September, the New Zealand’s environment minister announced a plan of mass culling across New Zealand, which included complete eradication of tahr in the Mount Cook and Westland National Parks. Although the headline number was presented to be 10,000 animals culled by the Department of Conservation, the small print read nothing short of population destruction. Once taking into account the 3,000 animals already culled in the Mount Cook area in the preceding weeks, and the requirements placed on stakeholders for further culling, the true number within 12 months was more like 25,000-plus.

Even without context, this would seem like a large number. But when you learn that the population estimate was 35,000, with culling to take place before the breeding season, and no account of the current season’s recreational shooting, you can begin to see the concern. Add to this the specific targeting of bulls at levels that could reasonably see all bulls wiped out in some areas, and you can understand why this escalated around the hunting community so quickly.

But that’s not all. The population estimate itself is in question, with the government’s own papers admitting that the population sat somewhere between 17,500 and 50,000 animals. The number of 35,000 was an arbitrary stab in the middle ground. Of course, the population is just as likely to be below this as above it.

To add a little more colour to the story, the current environment minister is Green Party member Eugenie Sage. The political situation in NZ sees the government propped up in power by coalition with the Green Party, and this appointment is their piece of power in the deal. What makes the situation ever more frustrating is that Sage has long held the view that tahr should be removed from NZ, even long before she was involved in main stream politics.

Tahr control has been undertaken by recreational hunters, guides and the DoC in the proceeding years, but it has failed to be cohesive enough to fulfil the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan published back in 1993.

This plan required a proactive approach from all bodies, including hunters, NGOs, commercial interests and government bodies. However, it was never properly implemented, and the five-year review laid out in the plan was never called.

As a result, a dis-jointed approach to management festered for decades, leading to the knee-jerk reaction we have seen.

From the day of the cull plan being announced by the government, implementation was due to follow 12 days later. At the time of writing, thanks to immense pressure globally, and the tireless work of individuals and the NZ Tahr Foundation, Minister Sage has called for the cull to be postponed to allow further consultation.

Tahr have been shown to cause damage locally – but that’s no cause for a mass cull

This is only just to start, and there is a lot of work to do. Hunters now have a seat at the table, with a chance to be part of the discussion once again. Now they have to implement sensible, sustainable management for the game and the habitat. There must be consideration taken for the environmental, wildlife and social impacts, as well as the value tahr play as a recreational and commercial wild resource.

To reach a reasonable outcome, there has to be a new direction to funding tahr management, with population targets not based on overall numbers, but the density habitats and locations can sustain. Habitat impact assessments need to be undertaken, recorded and monitored to guide control, much the same as we do in the UK with our deer. There has to be buy- in to a long-term goal from recreational hunters and the government.

As a side note, but entirely relevant, the method used for most tahr control in the preceding decades has been to shoot tahr from helicopters with shotguns. It is very effective at killing large numbers quickly – this method has now been directly related to the severe decline in the native Kea. Recent research suggests that these birds often scavenge carcases, and have been dying as a result of lead ingestion. As a result, the planned cull currently on the table was to be undertaken with non-lead shot. As it stands, this is going to prove difficult, with an industry boycott on the supply of steel shot to the government department unless a more sensible approach to the cull plan is taken. Watch this space.

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