Could rich Kiwis, business nous, and new technology really produce a predator-free New Zealand?

Could rich Kiwis, business nous, and new technology really produce a predator-free New Zealand?
Chris Liddell, chair of the NEXT Foundation (and Xero) has ambitious plans for biodiversity restoration – not all of them involving peanut butter.

As audacious goals go, they don’t get much bigger or hairier than this: to bring together rich individuals, innovative business, clever technology, Government, farmers and iwi to work towards a rat, possum and stoat-free New Zealand.  

Mostly, eradication of pests (of the animal variety at least) hasn’t moved much from the stone age – you bash them (traps, guns) or you poison them (1080 etc). Part of Liddell’s strategy is to fund people working to harness sensor and cloud-based technology to bring killing pests (mostly rats, possums and stoats) into the 21st century, and then to use these technologies in real world New Zealand environmental projects.

The NEXT Foundation, led day-to-day by former Direct Capital boss Bill Kermode, is tasked with spending $100 million of donations from retired Kiwi business couple Neal and Annette Plowman. Investments are focused on large-scale ($3-15 million), long term (10 years or more), education and environment projects.

In December 2014, NEXT announced it was working with Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP), a company developing technology to better control rats, possums and stoats. Then this week, the foundation launched Project Taranaki Mounga, a $24 million partnership with the Department of Conservation, Iwi, farmers and the Taranaki community to make the 34,000 hectare Egmont National Park into a pest-free zone – without using a predator-control fence.

NEXT Foundation and Taranaki Mounga Project from Next Foundation on Vimeo.

Instead the plan is to cull animals (using guns and 1080) and then stop the bad guys coming back using a mix of wireless- and satellite-connected lures, bait stations and – in the future – drones.

It could work like this. Imagine a sheet of thick, hollow, corrugated plastic (the sort real estate signs are made out of), cut into smaller squares, fitted with a radio antennae and hung from trees in the bush. The gaps in the middle of the corrugated plastic are filled with peanut butter or Nutella, and when a rat, possum or stoat chews on the lure, it triggers the sensor, which sends a radio signal along a chain of these connected “electronic noses” until it reaches a gap in the tree cover, where the signal can leave the bush. Then the message passes via satellite to a cloud-based web server, which in turn alerts a park ranger by email or text to the presence of an invasive nibbler, and its location. For example, “Last night at 4am you had a rat eating card 4310”. Park wardens or volunteers know where to head out to find and kill the predator.

Al Bramley

“The key is being able to respond quickly,” says Zero Invasive Predators CEO Al Bramley. “The satellite looks at data from the chew nodes every hour and as soon as it gets a response we know exactly where to go and we know there will be a rat [for example] within 100 metres of the chew sign. At the moment, we would respond with traditional tools, traps, dogs or bait stations. But in the future we will be able to use drones to respond really quickly – even in the middle of the night.”

Bramley and his team are also working on automated, connected lure trap systems, where, for example, food (like chocolate or peanut butter) would be slowly released, rather like out of an automated toothpaste tube. A pest taking the bait would trigger the trap and once the trap had been set off, a signal would go out via radio and satellite to the park rangers, who could head out and dispose of the animal.

The new technologies are now being tested on a 440-hectare site in the Marlborough Sounds, but Liddell says the aim is to use them on the Taranaki Mounga project – and potentially many other areas in New Zealand.

“If you can do this for something like a province, there is a chance for a predator-free New Zealand,” Liddell says. “We are funding the Egmont project for the first 18 months, working with DOC. If we can get some of these iconic projects funded and completed, DOC has made a commitment to keep them at sustainable levels in perpetuity.”

Chris Liddell

Liddell also hopes that the NEXT philanthropic model will inspire other wealthy New Zealanders to consider giving their money away. NEXT is run along venture capital-style lines, with investment criteria, measurable objectives and business disciples.

“The skillsets come from private equity. When we looked at the 100 projects [for this year’s round of NEXT funding] we were thinking about which might have the best return, what is the governance of the organisations are like, what is the likelihood of success. We work with the project to define their brand, their objectives, and hone their management skills. We help them measure their success and if they are not coming up to speed, we help them self-correct. I’d love to think if in 20 years time we have been successful, we will embolden other people to do something similar.”