Wellington philanthropist Gareth Morgan has announced his latest project: to make the whole of Stewart Island predator-free.
But the island’s 400 residents, particuarly cat owners, aren’t so sure.
Stewart Island’s birds, beaches and bush are ignored by all but the most determined of tourists.
Now Mr Morgan has hatched a plan he says will to have them visiting in droves. He wants to make the entire island predator-free.
“If we achieve this, that island will get UNESCO world heritage status,” says Mr Morgan. “Just if we look at bird watchers alone, 3 million bird watchers tour the world with those big lenses, looking at birds. So just to tap that market for Stewart Island would be a bonanza.”
It’s not a new concept. Others have tried but lacked funding to carry it out.
Mr Morgan estimates to rid the entire island of possums, rats and feral cats would cost between $40 million and $60 million.
“What we’ll do is appeal to the heritage conservation trusts around the world,” says Mr Morgan.
Ultimately he hopes the project will boost kiwi numbers on the island, so that they’d be seen walking in the main street in Oban.
The Department of Conservation’s on board, despite it being 15 times bigger than any project they’ve ever undertaken.
“The project would start with a fence line running through this area here, and we’d look to take out the pests in this Half Moon Bay area to act as a buffer,” says Andy Roberts of DOC Southland. “After that it would move out step-by-step.”
Locals too are warming to the ambitious plans.
“I think it’s a great idea,” says one resident. “It would be a wonderful thing if we could make the island pest-free.”
But cat owners on the island aren’t so thrilled. Domesticated moggies would probably have to be shipped away during the eradication phase.
“We got one cat and it doesn’t do any harm, sleeping inside at the moment,” says Stewart Island resident Bryan Cronin. “He’s well fed. He’s got a collar on and doesn’t do any harm at all.”
Mr Morgan says it’s a long-term plan, but he believes the whole island could be pest-free in five years, giving a huge economic boost to the tiny Southland community.