Island's Invasive "Killing Machine" Finally Captured

stoat photo
Photo: Impy Malting

The tiny island of Kapiti, located five miles off the coast of Wellington, New Zealand, is one of the last refuges for a menagerie of wildlife driven to near-extinction elsewhere by invasive species. Since the late 1980s, when all non-native animals were meticulously cleared from the island, it has been designated as a sanctuary, an important safe-haven for a host of birds species unaccustomed to predatory mammals. Late last year, however, a single stoat was spotted on the pristine island -- prompting an intensive, three month long search for the rogue "killing machine."With most of New Zealand's islands already overrun by invasive species, like rats and possums, Kapiti had long been considered a ideal refuge for the region's imperiled birds. For the past few decades, the sanctuary has been used as an important breeding and recovery site for species on the brink of extinction -- and officials don't take that responsibility lightly. Under Department of Conservation (DOC) control, the island is closely guarded from foreign intruders -- with strict limits placed even on human visitors.

That's why it was so troubling when a staff member spotted a stoat on the island late last year -- the first invasive species seen there in a decade. The weasel-like animal, native to Eurasia and North America, may be rather cute and unassuming, but appearance can be quite deceptive. "They're really just little killing machines," says DOC's Hamish Farrell.

DOC officials suspect that the animal made the 5 mile swim from the mainland -- and epic trek for a small animal with a hankering for protected birds.

With an immeasurable wealth of fragile biodiversity in their charge, the island's custodians quickly mobilized to catch the unwelcome predator. Over several months, 160 traps were set in strategic locations around the island. Officials weren't sure the scale of the problem, but they feared that one stoat could do plenty of damage on its own.

The stoat, however, proved to be quite the elusive pest, happy to avoid the treat-laden traps. "Because of the abundance of food on the island we thought we'd try something a little different," said Farrel.

Ultimately, the invasive animal's downfall came when DOC officials appealed to a more powerful desire than to snack on native birds. Playing on the hunch that the stoat was a male, staffers baited the traps with bedding material of a female. Sure enough, that did the trick. Just days ago, the stoat discovered dead within one of the traps.

"We don't want to jump to conclusions that this is the only animal we are dealing with but we are naturally hoping for the best with this find," says the DOC. Stoat-sniffing dogs will be brought in soon to make sure the island is once again predator-free.

Since the arrival of humans to the New Zealand islands some centuries earlier, many species that once could thrive in relative harmony have seen dramatic declines and neared-extinction. But, thanks to a concerted effort on the part of conservation officials to guard the wildlife, perhaps the power of mankind's influence can work to make amends.

And, as one intrepid invasive animal now knows all too well, when a few concerned people are unyielding in their commitment to protect nature, they'll leave no stoat unturned.

Via the New Zealand Department of Conservation, Otago Daily Times
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