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In association with Kiwibank

New dogs, old tricks, no predators: inside Kiwibank's 'we're going to the moon' conservation moment

While new ideas are always appealing, sometimes the best approach is to improve upon things that already exist. As Jessy Edwards discovers, a unique new alliance is doing just that by embracing well-established 'technologies' – dogs’ noses and traps – to help save New Zealand’s native wildlife. It’s all part of a new partnership between Kiwibank, the Department of Conservation and The Predator Free New Zealand Trust that aligns with the Government’s new goal to be predator free by 2050.

Killing in the name of ...

The Goodnature story starts humbly, ten years ago, when three mates joined forces to work out how to use their industrial design degrees to start a business. Now, Robbie van Dam (left), Craig Bond (centre) and Stu Barr (right) run a world-leading company making traps to humanely kill predators like rats and possums, saving New Zealand’s native birds.

Last year, Goodnature became profitable and the company has recently begun exporting its traps overseas.

It all started when the trio were studying together at Victoria University. Van Dam got a part-time job working at the Department of Conservation, where he volunteered laying traps for pests – carting giant wooden boxes with huge steel traps in them into the bush on his back. The traps were heavy, sometimes inhumane and had to be manually reset.

Realising design could help make the trapping process more efficient, he enlisted the help of friend Bond and they set about coming up with 100 ways to kill a rat.

They got together with Barr and, by 2007, the trio had signed a partnership with DOC for the department to part-fund development of a self-resetting, humane trap for rats and stoats, and then possums. But it wasn’t until an experience half a world away in 2008 that Goodnature really focused its business-model.

Up until then, the trio had dabbled with making furniture, and were even invited to exhibit at a Milan Furniture Fair in Italy that year. But that was also the site of an epiphany: selling furniture wasn’t as satisfying as working in conservation.

“It had a deep value to it,” Barr says. “It wasn’t just making bullshit for rich people, it was making a really meaningful product needed for the future of New Zealand. We thought that it could sustain itself and it could be made into a business that could, year-on- year, keep itself alive.”

They’ve since designed and patented the revolutionary A24 and A12 traps – mechanisms that kill rats and possums humanely, and then reset themselves – and continue to innovate in the world of lures and traps.

As it turned out, Goodnature was ahead of the curve. Barr remembers talking to managers at DOC about the company’s dreams to make the North and South Islands predator-free.

“They said ‘You’re just idealistic youngsters’, and only ten years later the government announced its goal to be predator free by 2050. Everything’s completely changed. It’s just exploding.”

The government’s recent announcement that it would be aiming to eradicate rats, stoats and possums from New Zealand by 2050 marks a huge shift in the conservation market.

When certain hugely effective poisons for killing pests were discovered in the ‘80s, trap innovation went out of vogue. “Massive companies that had big R&D arms reduced them and started a race to the bottom,” Barr says.

“And of course now that’s been shown to not be a sustainable way to [eradicate pests].”

Goodnature’s traps are now used in New Zealand by DOC, local and regional councils, community groups and individual consumers.

One-third of the traps are sent overseas, and Goodnature is pushing strongly into international markets. It has distributors set up in Denmark, the UK, France and Australia, selling traps around the globe.

While profit might seem like a dirty word in the conservation world, Goodnature is more on the social enterprise side of things. Becoming profitable allows it to fund further growth, research and innovation to rid the world of pests. Last year, Goodnature spent a quarter of its yearly revenue on R&D, while dedicating a third of its staff to innovation.

While the company has grown from three people to 18, Barr likes to measure their growth on other scales. “We had one printer when it was three of us, now we have six black-and-white and a colour. I remember the day we got a pallet jack. And we now have a company barbecue.”

And the company has business plans for the next one, five, 50 and 200 years, too. “We daydream about the drone that spies over the forest and is heat sensitive, and drops the trap that works for three years without human intervention,” Barr says. “It only seems about as ridiculous as a resetting trap did ten years ago.”

He thinks back to when he was a kid, when being nuclear free was the thing that bound us together as Kiwis. Nowadays, it’s being pest free and protecting the environment.

“Maybe when we talk next,” Barr says wistfully, “you won’t be able to hear me over the birdsong.”

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Kim Waghorn may be a self-described “squeamish townie”, but she’s proud to announce she’s caught seven rats since she got her very own predator trap. 

“I’ve got the A24, it’s a resetting trap. You don’t need to empty it and you can catch up to 24 times and it’s really humane,” the Kiwibank brand and sponsorship lead gushes about her Goodnature device (see sidebar, right). 

This is “weirdly addictive”, she admits, and it’s something New Zealanders around the country will likely be doing en masse over the next few decades. Since the Government announced its ambitious goal to rid the country of predators by 2050, Kiwis have perhaps unwittingly embarked on a huge journey together, whereby the hardy conservationists will be joining with the office-dwelling marketing execs to truly make this thing happen. 

And for Waghorn, the thrill-for-the-kill began about 18 months ago, when Kiwibank started planning a partnership with the Department of Conservation and The Predator Free New Zealand Trust, which will see the company give about $1.7 million to conservation projects run by the two organisations over the next three years. 

It’s part of one of the boldest plans of our time, but it involves dashing simplicity and relies on well-established 'technologies', like dogs and community engagement. 

BIGGEST PARTNERSHIP

Kiwibank started exploring the possibility of making a serious contribution to the protection of the broader New Zealand environment in March last year and the idea of tackling the massive predator problem was a good fit.  

Conveniently, the Government announced this July that it was formally adopting the ambitious “predator free by 2050” goal. And soon after Kiwibank announced the formalisation of its discussions with DOC and The Predator Free New Zealand Trust, creating an alliance that will help fund both a programme for conservation dogs and a programme to help communities around the country become predator free on their own. 

The biggest chunk of the money is going to help DOC boost its conservation dogs programme. New Zealand was the first country in the world to use dogs to benefit conservation, way back in the 1890s, DOC technical advisor for threats Finlay Buchanan says. And despite advances in technology, the dogs are still one of the most effective means of patrolling the bush, with dog-handler teams trained to sniff out either protected species, or predators, like rats, stoats and possums. 

Different dogs are used for different jobs – pointers are often used to find protected species (usually birds) so they can be banded, monitored or moved, and terriers are used to find pests like rats and stoats to be killed. 

The first year of the partnership will be a pilot to boost the dogs’ programme, funding a ‘pest detection dog handler’ and a ‘species detection dog certifier’ to oversee the operation, allowing DOC to increase quarantine patrols and surveillance. 

And while we don't often associate innovation with anything other than technology these days, Kiwibank says the approach to innovation was one of the things that attracted it to the partnership. “It seems pretty lo-fi, but tapping into what dogs are naturally amazing at, and their sense of smell, is such an incredibly efficient way to find the predators and to find and protect some of our most vulnerable species,” Waghorn explains. 

Clockwise from left: Kayla Sutton from Matakana School with her haul; Oscar Cowdell checks traps in Wellington’s Polhill Reserve; Marcus Cook with a trap in his backyard.

SUPER NOSES

Yes, dogs and their noses have been around for many thousands of years, but this invention, if you can call it that, has never really been rivalled. 

“Dogs, with their keen sense of smell and sight, have the ability to detect both protected and predator species in a way that humans or our technology cannot emulate,” Buchanan says. “While advances have been made with the use of tools such as tracking cameras, infra-red photography and sound recording, dog-detection is often the best way of searching localities and transported goods.” 

This ties in nicely to internet pioneer Kevin Kelly’s assertion that no technology has ever gone extinct (see interview page 78). Everything from carbon paper to paleolithic hammers are still being manufactured and used in some sense. 

In the case of dogs, canines have been used for centuries to detect game, to hunt and to protect domestic animals, Buchanan says. While their use in New Zealand by Richard Henry to rescue kākāpō from stoats in Fiordland in the 1890s was innovative and trailblazing, it was stymied by the fact Henry did not realise how far stoats swam, and did not have the modern poisoning and trapping technology to remove them. 

So while dogs’ noses might seem like an ‘invention’ as old as time, the way we use them is being adapted alongside new technology, to make tracking and protecting our native species even more efficient. 

CONSTRAINTS BREED CREATIVITY

But if dogs are such an innovative way of dealing with the problem, why haven’t they been harnessed earlier? The problem probably lies in the budget. The Government’s funding of DOC has been called ‘miserly’ by opposition parties, and this year there was debate over whether the department’s budget had been slashed yet again. 

Although tight budgets are rarely viewed in a positive light, there may have been unintentional benefits for DOC. While DOC has been working under budgetary constraints, its people have looked outside of the box to seek out creative means of funding, like the partnership with Kiwibank and other New Zealand businesses.

The idea that ‘constraints breed creativity’ has been backed up by scientific research. A 2011 study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam that was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people tested while working under distractions or within constraints both saw the ‘bigger picture’ of tasks faster and expanded the scope of their ideas. 

Kiwibank’s Waghorn agrees that DOC’s funding, or lack of it, has probably been one of the biggest barriers to paying for more dogs in the past. “Once you start digging into this world and what we’re up against it’s pretty overwhelming,” she says. 

But Kiwibank saw huge value in funding the dogs. For one, they’re effective. And secondly, they’re great PR for the cause. “They’re a really straightforward and effective method of dealing with the problem and also a really good way into the conversation for New Zealanders, because they happen to be pretty adorable, which helps,” she laughs. 

But Buchanan insists the partnership with Kiwibank isn’t driven by budget, rather by the ability to tap into Kiwibank’s networks for that essential PR. “As well as the obvious investment, these partnerships allow us access to [Kiwibank’s] networks and customers – a much wider audience that we can engage with about conservation,” he says, adding that the ‘Predator Free by 2050’ goal has given the department a boost. 

It’s announced new predator control funding of $7 million per year, on average, which DOC will use in part to improve current predator control tools and innovation. 

GOING TO THE MOON

This is the largest partnership Kiwibank has ever embarked on financially. Prior to this, its biggest investment was in the New Zealander of the Year awards, which happens to have rather a strong tie to the predator free plan by way of Sir Paul Callaghan, a visionary physicist and himself a New Zealander of the Year. 

A month before he died in 2012, Callaghan announced a “mad idea” to a packed auditorium in Wellington: make the country predator free. “Let’s get rid of the lot. Let’s get rid of all the damn mustelids, all the rats, all the possums, from the mainland islands of New Zealand.” It could be, “New Zealand’s Apollo programme”. 

“We refer to his vision and work a lot in our day-to-day business, and his vision for a predator free New Zealand was something that resonated with us,” Waghorn says. 

When John F Kennedy gave his famous 'We choose to go the moon' speech in 1962, many thought it was a dream that was unlikely to be realised. But, as he said: "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people ... But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win." He did win, and there were plenty of positive, mostly unintended consequences that came about as a result of this quest. As The Telegraph reported, NASA pioneered more than 6,300 technologies during its bid to understand and explore space. Many of these are now used in day-to-day life – from the CAT scanner to the joystick to home insulation. 

Waghorn also believes shooting for the stars is necessary to ensure you’re pushed far enough. “It is an unashamedly huge, ambitious goal and everyone realises this and that’s true for the New Zealand psyche – we’re never afraid to push the boat out and try for something that seems unattainable.” 

She says that if there was a trap in every fifth backyard, New Zealand could well become predator free. “And that sounds pretty do-able.” 

Jessi Morgan, Predator Free New Zealand Trust spokesperson

MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK

The Predator Free New Zealand Trust spokesperson Jessi Morgan agrees that one of the great innovations in trapping has been making it more accessible for communities. “It’s been quite a recent change in our thinking, even in New Zealand, to say if we’re going to win this war against the predators we have to get everyone on board. Part of that is empowering communities to make a difference.” 

As part of its commitment, Kiwibank will fund ten communities through The Predator Free New Zealand Trust to arm themselves to become predator free. Applications haven’t closed yet, but Morgan has already had interest from about 40 neighbourhoods. The model neighbourhood so far is Wellington’s suburb of Crofton Downs, which banded together to rid itself of rats with urban trapping. “Conservation has normally been the preserve of sandal wearing hippies, and that’s not my ilk,” Morgan laughs. “It’s been interesting coming in and saying ‘I care about this, but I’m not a hardout conservationist, and making it appeal to everyday New Zealanders is really new thinking for people.” 

Part of that is focusing on the fact that conservation in New Zealand is often about killing stuff, because the biggest threats to our native flora and fauna are invasive predators. 

As a result, everyone from children to the elderly are embracing the thrill of the hunt. Morgan points to a group of grannies on Stewart Island as an example of people you don’t expect getting involved. Alongside their beautiful china and doilies, they have a competition going to see how many rats each has caught in their back gardens. 

“It’s the gamification of ‘How many rats did you catch? that is so addictive,” she says. “Look at Kim [Waghorn] – we gave her a trap and she’s become addicted to it. If you can get a corporate marketing executive into it, you can get anyone.”

This story was originally published as part of a content partnership with Kiwibank. 

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