I’d just finished a delicious
four-course dinner at Kauri Cliffs, a
windblown New Zealand lodge surrounded by 6,000 acres of forest and rolling
coastal farmland in the North Island’s Northland region. Now, I could sit back with
a tumbler of single malt Scotch, thumb through glossy magazines in my cosy bungalow
or queue up a movie – all more-than-suitable comedowns from a day spent strolling
and taking a horseback ride to the beach.
On the other hand, I could go shooting possums.
I saw this activity listed – alongside golf and tennis – on the Kauri
Cliffs website when I first booked. Not quite believing it, I checked with the front
desk when I arrived. Yes, they assured me: a nocturnal possum hunt was
definitely on offer.
After dinner, I found Darcy Rhodes, the gamekeeper and resident possum
expert, waiting in the hotel’s pebbled drive. My hunting guide for the evening was
a 30-something local guy in jeans. His left arm was in a cast. “Motorbike
accident,” he shrugged, and we hopped into his mud-spattered pickup.
Our first stop was the spacious shed that is the closest thing Rhodes has to an office. We picked our way
through seed bags and farm machinery to a freezer in the back – out of which he
pulled a stiff, black object the size of a large housecat. It was a possum,
teeth bared, petrified into a pose of snarling fury. “Look at those claws,” Rhodes
told me. “You can’t treat ‘em like a teddy bear, see? They’ll take your fingers
I don’t own a gun. I had never
hunted before, unless you count clay pigeons and tin cans. I wasn’t
particularly comfortable shooting wild animals – never mind at night and in a
place about as far from home as I could possibly get.
other hand, I was up for an adventure. Particularly for one that, according to
the hotel, actually helped the
environment: New Zealand’s possums are one of the several armies of non-native
creatures that have decimated the country’s indigenous plants and animals,
including entire canopies of indigenous totara and kohekohe trees, the
kiwi and the blue-wattled kokako bird.
Rhodes armed me with a .22 and – his
grin widening – a 12-gauge shotgun. “That one takes no prisoners,” he quipped.
I think we both knew I’d end up
using the shotgun.
Rhodes’s official title is not gamekeeper; it is “pest-control manager”. And
when he’s not taking guests out for night shoots – which he only gets to do
about once a week – he is trapping and baiting all sorts of unwanted critters
at Kauri Cliffs. Possums are the main enemy, but so are stoats, weasels and
hares, as well as feral cats and pigs – all of which were introduced when Europeans
arrived in New Zealand in the late 18th Century.
Exclusive of these invasive species,
New Zealand is a naturalist’s dream, with primeval trees that look like scenery
from the movie Jurassic Park and a shrinking panoply of charmingly
old-fashioned birds, including the kiwi and a flightless parrot known as the kakapo.
And since many of these endemic species evolved in isolation on the islands for
millions of years, they are particularly vulnerable to imported predators.
Brush-tailed possums arrived from
Australia in 1837, brought by British colonists hoping to use their pelts to launch
a fur trade; the colonists ended up launching an animal invasion instead. Today,
possums feast on bird eggs and chicks, and eat up to half a pound of new growth
foliage a day. At Kauri Cliffs and elsewhere, possums also compete with birds
for food, a contest in which their size and ferocity give them a distinct
Unlike Australia, meanwhile, New
Zealand has no deadly natural predators. “Here, they only got me to fear,” as Rhodes
put it. “And you.”
Havoc on ecosystems
New Zealand isn’t alone in its battle against invasive species. In North
America, exploding populations of Burmese pythons, feral pigs and the
beaver-like rodent known as a nutria (introduced in the Gulf Coast from South
America in the 1930s for a short-lived fur trade) are wreaking havoc on
ecosystems. Researchers and conservation groups are calling the infestation of
lionfish (which established themselves in the Atlantic in the early 2000s after
being released into the ocean by Florida pet-owners) the worst marine invasion
Occasionally, efforts to curtail
these species dovetail with the tourism industry. In Chicago, chefs have turned
Asian carp into ceviche and chowder in an attempt to curb the rise of the
plankton-devouring species, which has spread to Great Lakes since escaping from
US fish farms in the 1970s. The World Wildlife Fund offers a commercial
tour in Palau, Micronesia on which snorkelers can help their guide remove
the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish, which every day eat their weight in
coral polyps from fragile reefs.
Overall though, the inroads have
been negligible. Efforts to rein in the lionfish seem to be the only initiative
generating much interest beyond the local level. Dive shops in Florida and the
Caribbean are asking clients to record where they find these ravenous consumers
of native fish, and are encouraging divers to go spear fishing for them.
Conservation group REEF, which is based in
the diving Mecca of Key Largo, Florida, introduced “derbies” in 2009. Since
then, these competitive hunts – with prizes awarded for the most fish killed – have
removed an estimated 12,000 lionfish.
While not every casual visitor wants
to wield a spear, it can be a more appealing prospect than the average
eco-tourist might imagine. “I think we all have this innate hunter-gatherer in
our genes somewhere that is typically suppressed,” said Lad Akins, REEF’s Director
of Special Projects. “So often in conversation we’re told what we cannot do,
where we cannot go, but here’s an instance where we’re saying here’s something
you can do. We want you to go out and take something.”
“Some people think we should just
let nature take its course,” Akins added. “Our general response to that is that
this isn’t a natural phenomenon. We caused this.”
Driving over double-track to the outer boundaries of Kauri Cliffs, Rhodes scanned
the grounds using a high-powered flashlight. Our first possum soon came into
view, turning its thick flanks to us as it raced away. Rhodes cut the engine;
by the time we got out, the animal had clambered about 12m up a tree. Its orange eyes gleamed eerily in the night.
“Best to hit it under the chin,” Rhodes
murmured. I had dreamed of executing the perfect shot. Instead, I couldn’t even
get the scope to focus.
“You try it,” I said to Rhodes,
handing him the gun.
He calmly rang off two shots. The
possum started wobbling on its perch. Rhodes fired again, sending it crashing
through the branches and landing with a whump.
Immediately, a second possum made a
dash some 6m away. This was within my range, and I managed to stop it with one
shot. “Got him!” Rhodes shouted.
I felt a nervous, almost caffeinated
buzz as we examined the results. Rhodes considered his carcass trophy-worthy
and threw it in the truck-bed. We left mine
where it lay. “Hawks will clean it up,”
I killed a half dozen more possums
that night. For each, I used the shotgun, which demanded nowhere near the same
precision as the rifle and did far more damage. Rhodes led us over to most of
the victims after they went down and had me finish them off if they were still
twitching. I felt invigorated – and sickened. An hour of carnage was enough for
Kidnappers, the other Kauri Cliff lodge on the North Island, the owners
have spent an enormous amount of money (they wouldn’t tell me exactly how much)
on a 10km fence. Unlike the simple, wire livestock fences at Kauri Cliffs, this
one is state-of-the-art: it is too deep to be burrowed under and has a curved
steel capping to keep animals from jumping over. Thanks to such sophisticated
protection from predators, the property’s nature reserve is home to several
Here, a visitor can go into the woods
accompanied by a naturalist who will use a radio transmitter to find one of the
endangered birds. You’re even allowed to pick it up and cuddle it.
This sunnier, fuzzier side of
eco-tourism is the one most often talked about – and we amateurs are not often offered
a ride over to the messier, nastier side of the same coin. But if I ever am invited
to do so again, I know I’ll accept.