Native wildlife needs us to take bold approach

Caution is reasonable but too much can hold us back,  Gerrard Eckhoff writes.

It  took precisely one week for the first and inevitable overly precautionary article to appear (ODT, 17.10.16) since Prof John Knight's vision of real hope of saving endangered species through gene drive technology (ODT, 10.10.16). This brilliant option offers more than just survival for our indigenous wildlife, it could well mean the end of malaria and the Zika virus through applying this science and technology worldwide.

A failure to act positively to this innovative science by authorities means they are allied to an unspoken complicity to retain traditional methods of predator control that have been proven to fail. Interest groups' fear of new technology becomes the fallback position which governments sadly do not ignore. The illegal introduction of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) some years ago occurred simply because it was widely understood that officialdom and pressure from ``interest'' groups would ensure biological control of the rabbit would not proceed. The rest, as they say, is history. The question of whether traditional control methods work has been well and truly answered with a resounding no - so if we as a country are serious about saving endangered species from the kiwi to the jewelled gecko we need to employ new science.

Strangely, the science and technology of climate change has seemingly been embraced throughout the world so why not the science of gene drive technology? Failure to do so seems to imply a certain selective morality. Those who oppose the theory of climate change are branded as the enemies of science, yet with gene drive technology it appears we must proceed with total caution even as the country intensifies the unintended consequences of 1080 being dropped over 15,000ha in Fiordland right about now. If we are to believe in the science of climate change, yet challenge the science of gene drive technology, we inadvertently succumb to chronophobia, or fear of the future. There is a well-managed process achieved by a phenomenon called group speak where those like-minded folk quickly form themselves into protective groupings to advance their cause or belief. Genetic modification is a case in point. Those who oppose such a future deny the cause of science which has delivered so much, from antibiotics to sanitation to the double helix structure of DNA.

The Prime Minister's belief that New Zealand could be predator-free by 2050 without spelling out the method by which he sees this being obtained is disingenuous. More 1080, more trapping, more poisons and more false hope will achieve nothing but bring the clock forward to a mere few moments before midnight for our indigenous wildlife. Time really is of the essence.

When simple answers, or more of the same no longer offer reliable solutions, society can then be given answers which appears to be entirely confronting to some - as seems to be the case with gene drive technology. It is a natural human reaction to question a new concept that is unproven. But how can such ideas be proven unless society says we at least must try to ascertain the validity of a new science.

The Orokonui sanctuary principle could be used, but in reverse. Captured predators could be held inside secure areas within a ``sanctuary'' while the technology is proven in the ``wild''. And how good would it have been if the combined might of Otago University alongside a well-functioning Invermay led the world with this ground-breaking science, right here in Dunedin. To have developed a stand-alone gene technology department focused on our, and indeed the world's endangered wildlife, needed the right people, political backing and a willingness to test new ideas and opportunities. Yet another opportunity passes Otago by.

The precautionary principle is a reasonable concept but to require that there can be little or no risk attached to any new development is akin to teaching that the future is something to fear and must be subjugated to prolonged investigations, challenged by report after conflicting report only to end up with the status quo.

When Ben Franklin ``discovered'' electricity he could hardly be expected to instantly recognise the risk and impact of electricity, yet the effect of this discovery would change the world forever. Nor was there, I suspect, any Royal Society to ponder application and the worth of the release of such a discovery to humanity.

Louis Pasteur found the cause of disease without the knowledge or blessing of interest groups (adopting the precautionary principle) who would no doubt have expressed horror at the thought of injecting non-infected people with a ``vaccine'' to build immunity. He coined the phrase ``that chance favours the prepared mind''.

It does society no good to add yet another rider to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse which already stalk our wildlife: death, destruction, plague and pestilence. The fifth horseman is representing perhaps the greatest threat of all - those timorous souls who fear risk.

Gerrard Eckhoff is a former Otago regional councillor.


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