Friday, November 2, 2012

Nocturnal Critters and Conservation Efforts

I bet you thought I was going to launch into a discussion of Kiwi birds, didn't you? Nope, today we're talking 'possum. 

The common bushtail opossum was introduced from Australia in the late 1840's to create a fur trade and to provide wild game. New Zealand continued to release animals up until the 1930's. 

They are marsupials, both sets of paws have opposable thumbs and yes, they really can play dead. They also have other neat tricks like this:

 Image taken by Frank Lukasseck/Corbis.
Opossums are omnivores and naturally would eat everything from fallen fruit to carrion. However, in New Zealand they eat birds eggs and tree foliage. NZ naturally only has two native mammals (bats and a tiny rat) so none of the birds or trees here developed any defenses to predation. And without any coyotes, big cats or foxes, the opossums don't have any predators either. So in order to keep numbers in check, the opossum is culled in vast numbers.

I'm not opposed to reducing numbers, obviously this hungry critter isn't native and can do a lot of damage (they are also a disease vector for cattle in this area of the world). I do have a bit of an issue with the gruesomeness of it all. 

In Napier, there is this store advertised to the tourists. 

and when you walk through the front door you are greeted with these:

In NZ opossum fur is marketed as eco-fur or ethical fur. The store above does have an informative walk through including a history, current culling methods and a discussion on the actual impact of the animal. Currently anyone is free to kill opossum, you can trap, poison or hunt them. The Department of Conservation also does aerial drops of the poison 1080.

Here are some of the items I've seen recently:


T-shirt. The animals are all over the road, and not in a good way.

Food items. Etc.

Opossums are commonly referred to as noxious and as pests. It's said that reducing opossum numbers is "New Zealand's second most popular sport, after rugby".  

The lonely planet even makes light of the problem recommending people visit the store above for something "warm and woolly" not even mentioning the conservation side of things.

I don't know if NZ realizes how ugly all of this comes off. Opossums are still wild animals. As a tourist, seeing the animals demonized and dealt with comically is a little unsettling. At the end of the day, it's a problem created by humans and maybe should get a little more respect.

Tomorrows post will be a lot more fun, I promise. We're off to Waitomo to visit the shiny shit cave maggots. 


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