In a very short time New Zealand moved from a long history of managing Himalayan tahr to the possibility of extermination. At the heart of this lies a Green Party philosophy that should be ringing alarm bells for all hunters across The Ditch.
It is a time almost beyond our imagination now. The electrical outlet makes its debut at the World’s Fair and will soon light the world. Number plates are introduced in the United Kingdom for the first time, and Herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, is quietly planning to do something that nobody has ever done before. The year is 1904.
His goal was a bold one: to send six Himalayan tahr from the zoological gardens of Woburn Abbey (some only captured in recent times from the highlands of India) to a British colony on the far side of the globe. To reach the South Island of New Zealand the small herd would make the longest journey ever undertaken by an alpine animal. It did not pass without incident. They left Plymouth on the SS Corinthic, a steamship of the White Star line. For reasons lost to history, the tahr were placed under the care of the ship’s butcher. During the journey one of the bulls escaped and raced around the deck before finally flinging himself into the ocean, the first and only tahr in history to drown at sea. The herd was released at Mt Cook among the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps. The aim was to make the new country a sportsman’s paradise.
The introduction was successful. A second shipment was dispatched in 1909 and by the late 1920s tahr were well enough established for licensed seasons.
In New Zealand tahr numbers are not controlled by wolves and snow leopard as they are in their native range. People must be their predators here. They can be excellent on the table and have been sold as specialist game meat. In recent decades they have moved to a multi-million dollar industry as a premier game animal for international hunters (who are classed by NZ Tourism as ‘high value’ tourists.) Between accommodation, guides, hospitality and other spending, each tahr bull is estimated to have an average worth of $14 000 to the New Zealand economy. Just let that sink in for a moment.
The terrain in which they live is unquestionably beautiful. The mountain slopes seem endless and alpine weather is fickle. This is a game played with top quality optics and if visibility is low, the day can be lost. It can be relatively easy, or there can be exposed crossings, snow and avalanche risk. A bull that is not cleanly dropped may never be recovered. You can die chasing these creatures. Many have.
The Tahr Control Plan has been in place since 1993. It was an agreement between stakeholders — the Department of Conservation (DoC), hunting groups and others with an interest in alpine habitat. The plan set a limit on geographic range and a population number of 10 000 tahr.
But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. On the hunting side, the number of professional guides in New Zealand has increased from a scant dozen or so to 10 times that number and more. The number of tahr and the number of bulls being taken has also gone up. The value of tahr to both professional and recreational hunters has grown enormously.
On the political side, New Zealand recently moved to a new coalition government made up of Labour, NZ First and the Green Party. This means the Greens hold a major bargaining chip within the new government, enough to snag their candidate Eugenie Sage a role as Minister for Conservation.
In the eyes of many this has exposed a weakness in the system. The Green Party won just over 6 per cent of the popular vote, and the new minister has never won a seat in parliament in her own right, relying on the complex ‘list’ system to become an MP. This means someone with no clear mandate from the people of New Zealand is now making the decisions that determine national policy on New Zealand’s wildlife. And it is very clear that for many people within the green movement, all introduced species — including trout and deer — are the enemy, to be eliminated at all cost. This is already green party ideology in Australia. It only needs a balance of power situation to give it wings.
It’s true the tahr population has increased, but by how much? Sadly, Australian duck hunters know this dance well. The aerial surveys used to determine Aussie duck seasons are open to all sorts of questions about methodology, but nothing comes close to the guesstimate used by the Department of Conservation as the basis of the proposed tahr cull. Using a single sample and extending it over vast areas of habitat (including terrain where tahr don’t live) they arrived at a possible tahr population of 35 000 with a margin for error at a whopping 50 per cent.
Based on that estimate the minister intended to cull 25 000 tahr by one means or another. This included shooting virtually all of those $14 000 bulls (not allowed for under the agreed plan) and leaving the majority of culled animals to rot.
Margin of error is not an academic nicety. If actual population is at the lower end of the estimate it would mean that the number of tahr to be shot is greater than the number of animals that exist on the ground. That’s extermination, not management. The reason offered was that tahr numbers had grown ‘out of control’ and were damaging alpine vegetation. But it is equally clear — by the department’s own admission — that no plant species has ever gone extinct because of tahr. Major culprits include hares and grasshoppers (a surprise, but apparently true) and the massive natural movement of rock and scree caused by the alpine environment itself. It’s also worth remembering that all alpine vegetation in New Zealand evolved under browsing pressure from a range of birds like the upland moa, takahe and kakapo. That’s why so many species have evolved browsing defence mechanisms (for example, the spines on spaniard and matagouri).
Greg Duley, publisher of NZ Hunter magazine, dubbed the proposed cull ‘Tahrmageddon’ on the basis that it could wipe out virtually all tahr on public land. The Game Animal Council — the statutory body set up to provide advice on these issues — was not involved in the decision.
As an FGA representative I was able to watch the dismantling of duck and quail seasons in Queensland. It followed the same path — a build-up of fake numbers by green and anti-hunting factions, followed by a sympathetic minister blindsiding the hunting groups involved. That one-two combination is how the game is played.
In this instance, the response from the hunting community both within New Zealand and overseas was staggering. A fighting fund was quickly set up. Donations poured in, including many from Australia, from hunters sensing the thin edge of the wedge. Many came from ordinary guys who understood the principles at stake. At the other end of the spectrum, the Dallas Safari Club quickly created a video of support, as did British hunting videographer Byron Pace with a first-class documentary, The Rise and Fall of a Mountain King. In parliament, the opposition quickly attacked the cull as unbalanced.
That fighting fund is currently heading towards $200 000. If needed it will be used to seek a court injunction to stop the cull, or to provide protection for tahr using valid population data. Setting tahr up as a Herd of Special Interest under the management of the Game Control Council is also an option.
The hunting community made good decisions. At the height of the controversy the minister attended the Sika Show, the biggest hunting expo in the country. Despite a tense situation she was treated with courtesy and was able to see at first hand the size of the industry she is negotiating with. Hunters were well-behaved and as a group we were able to keep the moral high ground. In a stunning move, ammunition suppliers across New Zealand refused to supply cartridges for a large-scale cull. (New Zealand is a small country and anyone breaking ranks to supply the cull would have lost business permanently.)
We often see social media as a tool for the anti-hunting community but in this instance the hunting team was absolutely on point, both in terms of message and speed. The result was a Dunkirk moment. Make no mistake, tahr were gone for all money on public land until all these steps were taken. But in short order hunters were able to bring the decision back to the table and put their views to the minister in a new management plan.
It seems to have resulted in a string of concessions — reducing the total cull from 25 000 to 10 000 for a start. That 10 000 to be made up of 6000 nannies from difficult access areas and the remainder to be taken by hunters (which is essentially the normal take anyway). No bulls to be culled and control to be carried out in measured and agreed ways with involvement of hunters. Wild Animal Recovery Operations (WARO) will be used where possible to utilise the carcasses.
As we go to press the minister seems to have moved in her understanding of how big the issue is, how united the hunting community is and how exposed the government is (in the legal sense) for its rushed approach.
The department seems to have accepted the need for proper consultation and reasonable management involving hunting groups. And hunting groups remain resolute, united and cashed up without any messy PR mistakes.
However, the final result hangs in the air. The fighting fund remains in place if the concessions are not realised. It’s now a waiting game to lock these concessions into a binding agreement.
Is this crisis over? Not by a long shot. There are so many ways this process could be derailed. Many hunters remember the department’s view back in 1993 — ‘that extermination (of tahr) is the preferred option.’
Whatever the future holds, the result of all this is much bigger than tahr. We may be turning the tide from ‘introduced pest’ to ‘managing the resource’. We’re the good guys and we acted that way. It was — and is — the defining moment of this hunting generation. We know how to do this now and no hunting problem will ever look the same again. We found our voice. I’m so damn proud of us.
I’d also like to say on behalf of all the Kiwi hunters out there still fighting, a thank you to our mates in Australia who chipped in for our Dunkirk moment. We got to live another day and now we begin the long fight back.
But when the dust settles it won’t be forgotten. I hope you never need us … but that if you do, we’ll be there for you, too.