Book review: Protecting Paradise – 1080 and the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife

Dave Hansford, Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife, Potton & Burton, 2016, 250pp, $34.99; reviewed by Don Franks

Along New Zealand roadsides, especially on the South Island’s west coast, are hammered hand painted signs. “1080 poisons our water”, “Kea killed in 1080 drop”, “1080 kills everything”.

The  accused 1080 is an organic salt, sodium monofluoraetate. First developed as a rodent killer during World War II by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1080 has since been in wide use for vertebrate pest control. The substance is spread in New Zealand today by the Department of Conservation (DOC), aimed at killing rodents preying on native plants and animals.

Some opponents claim 1080 does more harm than good, others say the substance does no good at all and should be forever banned.

Protecting Paradise is a comprehensive overview of wildlife conservation’s state and staunch defence of 1080 use.

Author Dave Hansford concedes: “. . . some claims by opponents have a basis in distant historical truth. During the 1970s and 1980s, 1080 operations did indeed kill significant numbers of native birds, because of the very high dosing and sowing rates used.”

Hansford also states in his preface: “For what its worth, I too would greatly prefer that we didn’t have to spread poison over our land”. He then develops a rigorous and thorough argument for the use of 1080 as a weapon in the battle for wildlife conservation.

A recreational tramper and environmental researcher of many years standing, Hansford is possessed of much information. His perspective is the scientific method, his concern the contradiction between science and and modern sound-bite thinking.

“Ask a scientist about 1080 in water and they’ll first want to know the concentration of the toxin, the flow rate of the water, the ambient temperature, the definition of an ill effect. They’d point out that, no, 1080 doesn’t kill thousands of birds but it does kill some, depending on their individual susceptibility, their size, their feeding habits. There’s a vast and deeply unsatisfactory disconnect between the way people like to conduct their arguments and the way science goes about settling them. Just tell me the answer goddammit.”

Perceived decline of scientific education and its possible consequences is a subtext of Protecting Paradise:

“Mean science attainment scores in New Zealand schools have fallen 15 points since 2006. . . does this matter? Yes, mightily. For one thing, it whips a downward spiral: fewer engaged students in science means fewer science teacher graduates, means fewer engaged students. . . It also means contemporary society has neither the vocabulary nor the comprehension to discuss critically important issues. . . How do we hold coherent conversations about climate change, public health, food security, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, if no-one understands the language?”

Critiquing alternatives  to scientific examination of phenomena is an essential part of Hansford’s argument: “A contingent existence is intolerable to many, and science offers cold comfort for it is ever equivocal – its the stuff of dubiety, when people crave certitude.”

Mysticism, religious thinking and conspiracy theorising offer certitude. Such mindsets can be unhelpful in acting on environmental problems.

Some aspects of present day protest politics are in the anti-science category. Emotive belligerence and personal abuse replace reasoned argument. Although firmly at odds with often hostile 1080 activists, Hansford makes a genuine effort to understand their point of view and, where possible, engage with them. Few 1080 opponents took up the author’s invitation to be interviewed for the book, those did are treated with respect. So are the views of anti-1080 deer hunters and rural people whose immediate interests may conflict with longer term conservation.

The writer has less time for politicians: the government at the time of writing “. . . has diligently upheld a venerable Kiwi tradition: running DOC into the ground. Every eight days the Ministry of Health spends about $150million – that’s DOC’s entire natural heritage budget for a year. With that pittance, DOC is expected to protect biodiversity over more than a third of a country that has one of the worst records of extinctions and one of the most desperately urgent biodiversity crises, in the world.”

Protecting Paradise responds specifically to claims that 1080 kills native birds en masse, poisons drinking water and causes cancer. Details and findings of study after study are set out, along with reports on other conservation methods, such as electronic traps.

Interwoven throughout Hansford’s cautious science is an impassioned demand for collective action.

“About a third of all earth’s vertebrates are now threatened and 45% of invertebrates. More than a third of butterfly species around the world are at risk. It’s true that plants and animals have always come and gone. They went extinct all the time, even before humans appeared. But species today are disappearing a hundred times faster than the steady ‘background’ rate of extinction- the rate at which Nature would normally claim them. That means it’s on you and me.”

Protecting Paradise will not please all conservation advocates.  Neither close-minded 1080 activists nor opportunist parliamentarians will like it, but Hansford makes a compelling case.


  1. The disbelief in what scientists have to say has very little to do with schooling and a lot to do with the fact that the corporate sector is constantly producing scientists who argue for any position you care to name.

    • Good point. Capitalists have visited much abuse in the name of “science”
      For example the alcohol and tobacco companies have bought many “scientific studies” to prettify their image.
      One of the things I like about this book is that the writer clearly explains the scientific method, how it applies to conservation, and the difference between this and junk science.

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