Carolyn ‘Kim’ King has spent her career helping to kill-off a thing that she loves, for the sake of protecting our native fauna.
She is a specialist in animal ecology, particularly of small rodents and mustelids -- ferrets, weasels and stoats. She’s just been made a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, an award that acknowledges true international distinction in research and scholarship in the areas of science, technology and the humanities. She loves the small animals she studies, but her work has made her a pest management pioneer. Professor King doesn’t like to dwell on the inherent contradiction. She does point out that she has always insisted on using the most humane way of collecting samples for her work, starting in 1972 when she introduced the Fenn trap to New Zealand. It is was then a much better alternative to cruel leg-hold traps.
Professor King began her academic career at Oxford University, where she earned her PhD, entitled 'Studies on the ecology of the weasel (Mustela nivalis L.)’ and studied under renowned ornithologist Henry Neville Southern. When asked how she was drawn to weasels, the memories come flooding back. As a graduate student at Oxford she was part of the Bureau of Animal Population, where students would do field work at a nearby woodland donated to the university. Professor King hadn’t decided what animal to focus on, but took advice about what was living in the forest. Badgers were ruled out as she wouldn’t have a bar of carrying out her work at night. She had never seen a weasel, but when she did, the attraction was instant. “It was beautiful and unknown. At the time almost no field work had been done on them.”
Weasels were quite rare, and trapping them started off as a challenge. After six months she only had five of them. So she threw up her hands and went on holiday. When she returned she ran into the gamekeeper at the woods, who showed her an old trick to catch them. It involved mixing up raw rabbit parts, and smearing the remaining mess in and around the traps. It worked like a charm, and her work made her a leader in the field.
When Professor King had figured out British weasels, she was headhunted in 1971 to come to New Zealand and look at stoats. She says the irony is that in the UK they are natives, part of the natural ecosystem. “They don’t belong here in New Zealand, and should never have been brought here -- it was a tragedy.”
Professor King put together the first standard text on NZ mammals, The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals (1990, 2005), and is currently working on a third edition with a colleague. She’s just finishing a new book, Invasive Predators in New Zealand: Disaster on Four Small Paws, which describes how so many predators got to this country and the damage they are still doing, especially rats. If anyone knows the answer to the question of whether New Zealand can be predator free, particularly by the Government’s stated aim of 2050, it is Kim King. But you won’t get a simple answer, you’ll get what could be seen as a cautiously realistic one.
Back in 1976 Professor King was at a national pest eradication conference, with all the leading experts in the field. She says they agreed you could not get rid of rats from an area that was bigger than one hectare. A decade later a new poison was discovered, and it completely changed the outlook. Professor King points to Breaksea Island, which is a is a rugged 1.6 km2 chunk of land to the southwest of New Zealand. It is still covered in forest, and was the site of one of the first successful campaigns to eradicate rats. “We have to look at history. In 1976 no one could believe you could get rats off an island that size. A decade later a technology was invented that completely changed that attitude.”
There is a word of advice. Professor King says the goal must not be just about removing predators but also about diversity and habitat restoration, but we must be careful. “Just because it is not possible to have a predator free New Zealand right now, at least outside areas cleared by community groups, that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. We just don’t know what technology is coming, but if our history is any guide, there will be lots of surprises along the way.”
The Royal Society Te Apārangi citation:
Carolyn (Kim) King is an Adjunct Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Waikato. Her research covers the areas of ecology, behaviour and genetics and her impact includes contributions to conservation, including work on improved methods of monitoring and control of rodents and mustelids. A pest management pioneer, the British Mammal Society awarded her their highest honour, the Mammal Society Medal, for her important work on mustelids and their predatory impacts on native species, combining fundamental and applied research. In addition to her research combining the latest technologies with extensive field observations and sampling, she is a committed science communicator, evidenced by her own writing and editorship of the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1983-2001) and New Zealand Journal of Zoology (1991-2009, plus Senior Editor 2010-2015).