In a small school in the far south of New Zealand, children line up.
Fat brown rats with long tails, their stomachs covered in blood. Smaller rats, stiff from the refrigerator, their tails tangled.
The children happily pass the rodents with their bare hands, proud of last night’s catch – and set on the goal of eradicating the rodents from the surrounding forests.
This small island school in Halfmoon Bay on Rakiura/Stewart Island recently unleashed its students on the local rodent population, holding a contest encouraging children to catch and kill hundreds of rats in a bid to preserve birdlife of the island.
40 students caught over 600 rats during the 100 day challenge. A five-year-old child managed to catch and kill 60 rats over the course of three months.
In TVNZ footage, captured in the middle of the competition, children toss buckets of rats across the school lawn, arrange them according to size and hang particularly impressive specimens by their tails to measure. Each child received their own trap, made from recycled political billboards.
“My trap, basically, everything is a layer of blood,” smiles an enthusiastic vermin killer.
“Even five-year-olds are really into the idea. They know the end goal: they want the kiwis back in their backyard,” said Emma Jenkinson, chair of the school’s board of trustees, who helped organize the contest. The children’s efforts are part of one of the world’s most ambitious pest eradication efforts; New Zealand’s national goal is to be predator-free by 2050.
The children say they are dedicated to trying to rid the islands of rats so the native birds can thrive. “We went for a walk once and saw more rats than birds, just in the trees, climbing the trees to probably reach the birds’ nests and eat their eggs and all that,” Bella McRitchie-King said. , the ultimate winner of the contest.
Rats are considered a dangerous pest in New Zealand and a major threat to native wildlife. Because most New Zealand birds have evolved without mammalian predators, they tend to be very vulnerable to rats, stoats, cats and other mammals introduced by human arrivals.
Many lay their eggs on the ground where they are likely to be eaten, and some, like the flightless kiwi, are easy prey for hunters on the ground. The country is now on a mission to eradicate uncontrolled predators, to allow these bird species to recover. Much of this work has been focused on the small islands of Aotearoa, where the sea border boosts their chances of completely eradicating predators.
With their vermin dead, the children competed for a series of prizes, including for most rats caught – awarded to 11-year-old Bella, who caught 64. The school also gave out prizes for the fur coat of the most aesthetic rat (a rich black color), the rat with the weirdest tail, the biggest teeth and the biggest rat – an impressive 45 centimeters long.
Jenkinson said the children were already heavily involved in conservation activities, so they weren’t put off by their rat-trapping efforts. “It’s okay for them to trap rats. But having prizes offered really raised the stakes.
“For some of the big catchers, it was about trapping on demand,” Jenkinson said. “They were trapping at neighbors’ houses, in their sheds, in their backyards.”