Great Mercury was one of the first sites of human habitation in New Zealand. Last year, a radical new public-private partnership sought to rid the island of pests. It was a unique operation, and the results have been astonishing.
Legend suggests that it was the white cliffs of Great Mercury Island that Māori first saw when approaching Aotearoa—magnificent 180-metre-high walls of chalk, incandescent in the rising sun.
That was the moment when things started to go wrong here, ecologically. Māori settled on Great Mercury, beginning the first chapter of human habitation, and inadvertently introduced kiore rats, too, beginning a biological siege that lasted for centuries. Thereafter, events on the Mercury Islands would play out as an alarming precursor to the destruction wrought by humans and pests on the mainland—the fate of New Zealand’s environment in miniature.
Ship rats were added to the scourge with the arrival of Europeans, and parts of the island cleared for pasture across the 19th century, adding habitat loss to the litany of ecological ruin.