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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Be an Environmentalist - Buy a Possum Coat

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Ruth Page tells the tale of the Australian brush-tail possum. The animal was introduced into New Zealand to develop a fur trade in the 1800s. Now the bottom has fallen out of the fur market and the animal is running roughshod over New Zealand's unique plant communities.


One of the hardest lessons many environmentalists have had to learn in recent years is that sometimes, preserving an ecosystem can require eliminating a species, rather than protecting it. Commentator Ruth Page explains.

PAGE: Suddenly we learned that it's practically our duty to buy fur coats if we want to be good environmentalists. Thousands and thousands of us should order them, to help save many species of animals and plants that are now in desperate straits in New Zealand. We're told this in a recent Smithsonian magazine by an outstanding authority, Noel Veetmeyer, one of the most respected plant researchers in the world, a native of New Zealand, and author of some 40 books. All of those coats I mentioned must be made of the fur of the brush-tailed possum. That's a mere six-pound critter that can raise a baby every six months, has no natural predators in New Zealand, and along with her buddies, is producing 20 million young a year - a passel of possums, no matter how you look at it!

The little critters were introduced in New Zealand, purposely, a hundred and fifty years ago by residents who wanted to establish a fur trade. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Now, though, the bottom has fallen out of the fur market, and the possums have proliferated by the millions. Some 70 million possums consume about 20 thousand tons of New Zealand plant material every day - devastation no ecosystem can sustain. New Zealanders are in an uproar. Some of their favorite, unique and most beautiful plants are threatened. Two splendid trees, pohuticala and ratta (???), grow along the island's northern coastline. They've stood for 400 to 800 years, but they can't survive browsing by the brush-tailed possum and are dying fast.

Trappers would be glad to return to their trade and help keep the possum populations down, but at only two dollars a pelt they can't sustain the work. Moreover, things have gone so far, now there's doubt that even widespread trapping can save various environmental treasures from the possums.

The government is experimenting with poison pellets. They allow shooting of the possums on sight, they still encourage trapping, and they hope - sometime before it's too late - that they can control possum populations by a contraceptive agent. Pretty hard, though, to sterilize 70 million animals that move from trees at night. And scientists haven't been successful yet in creating the contraceptive.

This is one more of the many true stories that prove humankind, when we interfere with nature, blow it just about every time. Introducing, by mistake or on purpose, plant or animal species to an environment that never had them before, always gets us into trouble. From zebra mussels to Eurasian millefoil, from pigs shipped into Hawaii by early settlers, to common garden weeds brought to the United States by immigrants from Europe, we've all seen how easy it is to disrupt an ecosystem that nature has spent ages getting into proper balance. Sometimes we carry our love of nature's creatures too far. Maybe sale of New Zealand possum furs could help pay to rescue those gorgeous, threatened trees. This is Ruth Page, talking with you about Earth's gardens and the environment, from my home in Burlington, Vermont.



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