Image of the December 2016 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
December 2016 Issue
Home / Articles / Conservation

Death from above

Worker safety is paramount – those handling 1080 wear protective clothing as they load a bucket with 1080 pellets. Photo: Stephen Horn
What happens on a 1080 poison bait operation? Dave Hansford goes inside a drop zone to find out

Before we start,” asks Nick Hamon, “is anybody colour-blind?” It’s six o’clock in the evening before a two-day aerial 1080 drop in Coromandel Forest Park. Hamon, a DOC ranger and operations manager is briefing 16 locals hired to walk the tracks and clear them of baits after the choppers have gone through.

If anybody’s going to have trouble picking out the green of a 1080 bait – 12g, about the size of your thumb – they’re not about to admit it now. They look hard: big Maori guys in sweats and gumboots. Grizzled pig hunters and deerstalkers in camo. They’ll walk the tracks twice, doing their first sweep within hours of the drop, then again the following day, because baits can get hung up in trees and only come to earth later, after a decent breeze. Hamon gives them a tip: “Search from right to left. You read left to right, so your brain’s used to ignoring bits of information in that direction.”

He hands out vivid safety vests, maps, safe-handling instructions, radios, GPS units, a list of call signs and earplugs for the helicopter ride that will take them to their start points. He throws an XL vest to a huge Maori guy: “That’s not big enough,” some joker quips from the back.

DOC won’t be closing the park for this drop. Forty-eight hours ago, neighbours, schools, farms, hostels were each notified by more than 500 phone calls. Notices were put in the papers, more than 180 signs erected on entry points and trailheads. Now it’s up to the public whether they want to enter the drop zone. It means trampers could actually have baits falling on them as they walk. Apparently, you should hop under a tree if you hear the chopper coming: even a 12g bait could give you a bit of a bump on the head after free-falling 400m.

Hamon turns to the rest of the audience – there are more than 60 people involved in this operation – and lays down a few rules. Nobody, except the pilots, gets onto the loading skids unless they’re in full protective kit: paper overalls, gumboots, respirator, goggles and earmuffs.

Nobody gets through a checkpoint without clearance. “And stick to your call signs,” urges Hamon. “We don’t want to hear personal contact details over the radio.” On no account is anyone to give away their name, or their location. Everybody gets a call sign, and the various key sites have been assigned acronyms or euphemisms. “We’d be silly to think we’re not being listened to.”

It could get aggro tomorrow. The Coromandel has long been a hotbed of 1080 opposition, and things have turned ugly before. In 2009, protestors stormed a loading skid at Whenuakite, tried to dismantle equipment and jostled staff and landowners. Police arrived in riot gear, then kept the protesters at bay while DOC shifted the whole shebang to a more secure site.

Hamon doesn’t want any repeats. “Report anything unusual,” he says. “Confrontation is out of scope. You guys don’t have to hold the flag up for us. Keep yourselves safe. Just back away and tell them to talk to the DOC office. Our staff have been trained to deal with difficult and aggressive people.”

Then the operation’s safety officer, Elisa Karwowski, reminds everyone that there’s a lot riding on this: “Eyes will be on us. Professionalism is paramount.”

Drop day dawns gloomy, and skeletal fingers of cloud stroke the flanks of Table Mountain. As I wait in the half-light for a ride to the first checkpoint, a silver station wagon steals furtively past the visitor centre. It slows while the driver takes a good look at me. The back bumper is covered in pro-hunting stickers.

Workers prepare bait for the Coromandel operation. Photo: Supplied

Workers prepare bait for the Coromandel operation. Photo: Supplied

Almost straight away, there’s a problem. The helicopter company has brought three aircraft: a lithe-looking Squirrel and two ponderous Iroquois, one of which has a malfunction: the hook that carries the bait bucket won’t engage. It’s a setback. Each of these big helicopters can lift 1200kg of bait per flight, so every hour of downtime draws the operation out into uncertain weather.

It also means the track checkers are standing about, killing time. I watch the one operable Iroquois come and go. The pilot coaxes the aircraft in against the wind, then places the bucket gently down barely a metre from a truck loaded with bags of bait. Working the levers of a Hiab crane on the back of the truck, ground staff swing a hopper over the helicopter bucket and empty four bags’ worth of 1080 while the pilot hovers in the rambunctious breeze just metres above their heads. Then he lifts the shuddering machine, gently feeling for full stretch, taking the strain before lifting clear. The whole thing has taken a little under 55 seconds.

The hilltop falls silent again, allowing the crackle of comms back in. The silver station wagon has been seen again, and it contains, according to the voice on the radio, “a person known to us”. That person is Graeme Sturgeon, a man for whom the sound of an Iroquois might well be haunting. A Vietnam vet, he still bears the scars from what he says is contact with Agent Orange. Sturgeon figures that because that poison was wrong, then this one is too, and he’s an anti-1080 hard-liner here on the Coromandel. “1080 is war to us,” he once declared to the Waikato Times, “and there will be no holds barred. The war will be won.”

He and four others have blockaded the park entrance with vehicles, trying to stop the supply trucks. An empty one was kept from leaving, but police soon moved the protesters to one side, where they’re now standing round a barbecue, surrounded by anti-1080 and pro-hunting signage. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a DOC vehicle, getting a lift between zones, when we pull up to the entrance. Sturgeon stalks across, assuming I’m a DOC staffer. I wind the window down. He’s big and angry. “You’ve had police crawling all over the road, trying to stop us,” he chides. “You’re a disgrace.” Remembering Hamon’s brief, I say nothing, and Sturgeon wheels about and leaves. Over the course of the action, the protesters put out two calls for reinforcements. Two more people turn up, but the trucks can come and go unimpeded. By afternoon, everyone has left.

“You’ve had police crawling all over the road, trying to stop us,” he chides. “You’re a disgrace.” Remembering Hamon’s brief, I say nothing

Today and tomorrow, helicopters will drop baits over three discrete operational zones. The main one is a roughly triangular 23,582ha wedge of southern Coromandel Forest Park, partly cloven by a narrow exclusion area, stipulated by the Waikato DHB Medical Officer of Health, Dr Anita Bell. It isolates a roughly 7km reach of the upper Kauaeranga River, water supply for the nearby town of Thames and the various campgrounds and picnic sites beside the river. There are two smaller blocks: Whenuakite, a kiwi stronghold north of Tairua, and around 600ha of regenerating native forest at Mataora, owned by Ngati Porou ki Harataunga ki Mataora.

Later in the day, I’m flying over the park’s rumpled hinterland. The whirling shadow of the Squirrel plays across a chaos of pinnacles, the hardy cores of old volcanoes still jutting from the forest, their softer flanks long since eroded. Serpentine ridges lay lopsided where the ages have hurled them. It occurs to me that there is no way in hell you could run a trap network in this kind of country.

At the operations base, the flight paths of the helicopters can be monitored to ensure no areas are left unbaited. Photo: Supplied

At the operations base, the flight paths of the helicopters can be monitored to ensure no areas are left unbaited. Photo: Supplied

Pollen samples show that around AD 1000, the Kauaeranga Valley wore a cloak of rimu, kahikatea, tanekaha, kauri and    northern rata that towered over a rich melange of pukatea, maire, tawa and kohekohe. Between 1200 and 1400, Maori fires regularly left it in ashes. In 1870, came the kauri loggers, who at their most industrious, were milling some 236,000 cubic metres of kauri a year.

Then, in 1915, somebody let some possums go in the Karangahake Gorge, not far from Waihi. They probably reached here soon after 1940. By the 1970s, they would have been teeming. Rata began dying in the lower Kauaeranga and a decade later, the cloak was threadbare: ‘Since 1980, many large emergent rata have died,’ noted a 1994 study. In the middle reaches, fuchsia, five-finger, mahoe, towai – possum favourites – were dwindling. ‘The most unequivocal decline is shown by kohekohe, which has reduced by an order of magnitude,’ lamented a 1994 vegetation survey.

In 2015, an Auckland University study re-measured permanent forest plots originally set up in the Kauaeranga Valley in the 1980s. The results show that the logging wounds are starting to heal. Spindly, fast-growing colonisers like kanuka and manuka are giving way to emergent hardwoods – podocarps, tawa and hinau. But the kohekohe has yet to recover, and mamaku – black tree ferns – are still thinning. The Kauaeranga forest is not reverting to its full pre-logging variety. Why not?

Over three consecutive days in September 2014, trappers had checked four lines of possum traps at each of five sites around the southern Coromandel Forest Park. They counted the possums caught, and calculated a percentage that pest managers call a Residual Trap Catch (RTC) – the estimated density of possums before control. To best protect biodiversity (and to control TB), a pest control operation is generally triggered by an RTC higher than five per cent. That September, the RTC was 15.87 per cent. Little wonder the kohekohe are struggling.

As we cross the spine of the Coromandel, I study one of the Squirrel’s instruments: a TracMap GPS unit. It’s a map display that shows precisely where the helicopter is, to within a metre. Map and ground move together as one, and the helicopter’s track is scribed across the screen.

The pilot (we’ll call him James, because hunters are a big part of his heli-business, and he doesn’t want to be named) explains how it works. All three target blocks have been mapped prior to the drop, and GPS track lines and their boundaries plotted into the TracMap. Those lines appear on the moving map, along with the helicopter’s position. Just below James’ eyeline is a narrow horizontal console bearing a line of bright LEDs. When he’s off track, red lights at each far end of the row burn bright. As he flies closer to the track line he’s selected, the lights crowd towards the centre of the display. When they go amber, he’s getting close. When a single light burns green at dead centre, he’s locked on. In this way, a pilot can follow the plotted flight lines with astounding accuracy.

Non-toxic bait that looks very similar to the green 1080 pellets is dropped prior to an operation to get predators used to eating the pellets. Photo: Supplied

Non-toxic bait that looks very similar to the green 1080 pellets is dropped prior to an operation to get predators used to eating the pellets. Photo: Supplied

In one corner of the TracMap console is a USB port. The system records, to the nearest part of a metre, where he flies, where he turns, when he opens the bucket, when he closes it. After he completes a line, the TracMap daubs that line with colour, so he knows where he’s been. The pilots’ first few flights of the day trace the entire boundary of the drop zone, laying two 150m-wide swathes – what they call a ‘trickle feed’ – of bait, one inside the other, from a small bucket that carries just 600kg of bait.

Then, like a farmer ploughing a paddock, they tack back and forth in straight lines across the inside. The two concentric boundary runs have given them enough room to turn without any risk of overflying or spilling any baits outside the operational boundaries. Now they use a bigger bucket. It has a lawnmower engine underneath it that drives a spinning plate. As the baits tumble onto the spinner, they’re collected by small vanes that bat them across a wider 220m-diameter swathe. The spinner’s throw has been calibrated into the TracMap system so that it records the coverage of baits on the ground. “The most imprecise thing in this aircraft is the pilot,” says James.

At Mataora, I watch James hug the oscillating contour, maintaining sufficient height to let the baits fly out to full spread. Not just anyone can do this. Pesticides like 1080 come under agricultural application rules. You need the appropriate Civil Aviation Authority certification and a training record. James has been flying for 30 years, and was once a deer recovery pilot. To gain his ticket, he had to do 80 flying hours of aerial sowing practice, then another 200 hours of supervised flight. Then he had to log another 1000 hours of practical before finally gaining full certification.

During one replenishment, he hands a flash card out the window. Mel Williamson, the GIS officer for today, plugs it into a laptop, and there, writ large, is James’ track across the sky. Williamson can see at a glance where the baits have gone, or not gone. At one point on the map, red flight lines stray across the yellow operational boundary. ‘Hmm…’ she says, peering at the screen. ‘He’s overflown here.’ She zooms in and the software immediately calculates the extent of the transgression. It’s 30cm (TracMap has developed software that automatically shuts the spinner off when the machine approaches boundary         coordinates).

Critics constantly condemn aerial 1080 operations as indiscriminate. They choose words like ‘dumping’ or ‘carpet bombing,’ which might have described operations prior to the 1990s, when 1080 was applied in preposterous amounts, from fixed-wing planes with nothing like the precision possible with helicopters. There are records of Forest Service operations that dropped 30kg of bait on a single hectare, sufficient to kill any pests many times over.

Using technology linked to satellites, 1080 can be spread by helicopters with remarkable accuracy. Photo: Supplied

Using technology linked to satellites, 1080 can be spread by helicopters with remarkable accuracy. Photo: Supplied

By contrast, the sowing rate for this Coromandel operation is just 2kg/ha, and some modern-day operations go as low as 1kg. DOC likes to say that such parsimonious application equates to just four baits over something the size of a tennis court. A few weeks after this drop, trappers checked again for possums, using the same Residual Trap Catch method they had before it. Out of 200 traps, over three consecutive nights they caught one possum – an RTC of 0.17 per cent, down from nearly 16 per cent pre-drop. At Whenuakite and at Mataora, it was zero. Rats – which had tracked at 69 per cent at Whenuakite before the previous September’s drop – were still at zero the following February.

Not everybody was impressed. The day after the Kauaeranga drop, I found myself prowling the riverbanks. The  previous night, Facebook had gone off: the anti-1080 protesters had gone straight to work, posting videos and photographs, underscored with outrage, of 1080 baits resting in water, allegedly somewhere nearby, and scattered along a walking track. The accusation was that baits had been dropped into the Kauaeranga River; that the unknowing townspeople of Thames would be drinking contaminated water.

So I’d come to see for myself. Assuming the activists had documented a violation of the public health permission, I looked outside of the operational boundary, below a swingbridge that crosses the river not far from the road end. Starting my GPS, I stalked slowly like a heron along the true right of the Kauaeranga, scanning for any infringement. It took me nearly 45 minutes to cover 300m. I looked between rocks and in shallow riffles. I peered through polarised sunglasses into the riverbed. I found nothing.

Turning north-east again, I crossed the swingbridge and looked upstream instead, prowling the track for errant baits. After a little more than a kilometre, I spotted my first, partly hidden barely a metre and a half from the track under dead fern fronds. It’s an odd thing: I’ve been writing about 1080, off and on, for 15 years, but to finally see that small green cylinder lying on the forest floor came as a jolt.

– This story is an extract from the book Protecting Paradise, by Dave Hansford and published by Burton and Potton. Read our review here.