Introduced by Leslie Clague
Jim Hilton, BSc Hons, Nelson-Buller based wildlife biologist and ecologist, spoke in December of last year to the Nelson Science Society. The following is part 1 of a serialisation of his presentation. It covers his time possum hunting.
Hunting possums from the mid 1970s
By Jim Hilton
I started hunting possums on Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch in 1974. It was a steep learning curve and I only caught about 400 possums in my first winter. It was obvious I needed more bush and more possums, so I moved to Karamea, and poisoned and trapped possums there every winter for eight years.
Government allocated specific areas of forests to hunters by ways of permits (possum blocks), but the prices for skins kept rising and Government got tired of policing petty squabbles about who could go where. It started an “open slather”, “go anywhere you like” hunting system in 1978. I thought it was a win-win system at the time, but in hind sight it was lose-lose and it still is today.
At the time, possum skins prices kept rising and I caught over 1,000 possums every winter. High prices seldom last and the money paid for skins collapsed in 1982. From an average of $12 a skin in 1979, I was confronted by the reality of a $2.20 average in 1982. There were only about five full-time possum hunters left in Karamea, so we found other things to do.
There were hardly any possums left anyway. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the numbers of possum skins exported from NZ was about half a million annually. In “game management” or “population ecologist” speak, that’s an “annual off-take” of half a million possums.
Times changed. Skin prices rose from 25 cents to $12 averages. Technology changed. Suddenly hunters were using aeroplanes and helicopters. Exports of possum skins peaked at 3.2 million skins in 1979. This amount was a huge increase and completely unsustainable, a textbook case of “serial overkill.”
Present day possum hunting and the poison industry
We still have a few possums in NZ. About 1.2 million are harvested annually for fur and converted into useful export dollars. A taxpayer funded “poison industry” kills an unknown number annually and leaves them to rot where they die.
~ Some are in waterways (mountain streams and rivers)
~ some on the forest floor.
~ some in their dry nests under large rocks and tree roots.
This process of “over hunting” is described by population ecologists as “serial overkill” or “Blitzkrieg” extinction” when a species is wiped out completely and matches what happened to wildlife in other parts of the world.
Trying to exterminate wild life
“Serial overkill” of wildlife by human beings is common; it has happened for much of human history. In NZ it happened with our larger introduced wildlife – deer, tahr (thar), chamois and pigs – some six years before we overkilled possum. Again, it was a combination of rising prices and military technology (cheap helicopters left over from the Vietnam War). Humans are great at exploiting new opportunities, especially when they think they can get rich quickly.
It only took five or six years for hunters and helicopter pilots to gear up and go after wild game. Peak annual harvest was in 1973 with a commercial off take of about 200,000 animals. It was another case of “serial overkill”. By 1980, the numbers had dropped by 70% to about 70,000 game animals.
Bogus Tb claims justify helicopter poison drops
Let’s go back to my possum poisoning and trapping in Karamea. Government was taking an interest in possums for another reason. Veterinarians had discovered Tuberculosis (Tb) in possums and thought possums were spreading the disease back to cattle. The Government employed hunters who killed the Tb infected possums that were close to problem farms. They, too, eventually did themselves out of a job.
But their bosses had other ideas. They were quite sure that the few remaining possums were a “reservoir of Tb infection” and that they needed thinning out even more. They decided to aerial poison possums in the entire bush behind the problem farms.
I watched the first helicopter poisoning of the Karamea Ecological Reserve. The locals call it the Karamea Bluff. I tried to convince a few farmers that their money was being wasted, but the Government vets had done a hard sell on the link between Tb and possums, so I gave up quickly. The rest is history. Government departments come and go, politicians come and go, names change, but year by year, the poisoning has increased.
I was not amused. I had skinned about 15,000 possums and knew that Tb was not a problem. Only about .03% of possums were infected. The other possum hunters knew that too. The only places we found unhealthy possums infected with Tb were where cattle had been farmed. “Hotspots” were like the Mohikinui Flats and the coastal section of the Heaphy track.
There was a family of kea parrots living on the Karamea Bluff Road at the time of the first aerial 1080 poisoning. They disappeared after that. I was not the only one to notice. I like kea and enjoyed their company. It’s lonely up in the bush when you spend all day there skinning possums.
Part 2 of Jim Hilton’s talk will look at ethics in science, geological history and the moa.