Tahr 101 – How did we end up in this mess?

Tahr 101 – How did we end up in this mess?

With the announcement of DOC’s Draft Tahr Control Operational Plan for 2020/21, which is poised to take effect from the 1st of July – yes that’s just two day away, another absolute sham of a consultation process, we are on the eve of Tahrmageddon 2 – without doubt our biggest battle yet, as make no mistake, this proposed control work is eradication in disguise. It WILL kill the tahr hunting resource as we know it, it WILL kill many jobs and people’s livelihoods, regional development, any sort of much needed recovery post covid-19 for those affected, it WILL kill a passionate recreational pursuit enjoyed by thousands, and it will KILL the mental and physical wellbeing of many. What’s proposed by our own government is truly unbelievable.

But for the benefit of those who don’t know - what actually are tahr and how did we end up in this situation today?

Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) are - as their name suggests - native to the Himalayas, where they are now sadly considered a near threatened species on the IUCN Red list of threatened species as their population is in decline. They are their own genus and species, neither sheep nor goats, world renowned and admired for their ability to live high in the harshest mountain environments and for their amazing shaggy winter coats, being the only animal in the world other than the lion to have a mane. They were first introduced to New Zealand, 116 years ago in 1904 near Aoraki/Mt Cook by the Government Tourism board of the day, for sport and to attract tourist hunters to visit NZ. Due to the absence of any predators (like the snow leopards that prey on them in the Himalayas), and the ideal mountain habitat provided by the Southern Alps, they largely thrived and spread to occupy today’s feral range from the Landsborough River in the South, to the Rakaia River in the North. Tahr were protected by the government up until 1937 when there was a change in mindset from one of asset to pest, which saw them culled by government ground hunters through the 40s, 50s & 60s. A commercial market for tahr meat was established in the 1970’s and commercial helicopter tahr recovery nearly wiped out the entire tahr population by 1983. The government of the day prevented elimination of tahr through a moratorium on commercial harvest of tahr, and initiated a process to manage tahr, resulting in a Himalayan Thar Policy in 1991, and the Himalayan Thar Control Plan in 1993 (HTCP). The HTCP was actually quite forward thinking for its time and given the available science and evidence of the day, sought to manage the impacts of tahr on our natural ecosystems, while also providing for recreational and commercial interests.

Some quoted objectives from the thar policy and thar plan are:

“To determine, and review from time to time in accordance with evidence from monitoring, the population of thar which for any area is consistent with an ecologically acceptable vegetation and estate condition (the target level)”

While the plan acknowledged that:

“A thar population at or close to the habitat carrying capacity (ca. 50,000) will have unacceptable impacts on vegetation, and therefore on native insect and bird fauna. On available evidence a population of 10,000 over the entire range is identified as a presently acceptable maximum, at which impacts on vegetation may be tolerable, and which will provide sufficient hunter satisfaction and commercial opportunities to maintain hunting pressure.” (Note that hunter opportunity was based on 1993 usage not today’s, much higher level of tahr hunting.)

“There is little quantitative evidence describing thar impacts on flora and fauna”

“The derivation of thar density and population size from the available data should be treated with caution. The figures are "best estimates" which for some management units are based on few if any thar counts. This initial attempt to quantify the parameters required for future thar control should be continually refined.”

“More work is required over the breeding range to determine, on an ecosystem and biodiversity basis, exactly what an acceptable limit is”

“The Plan will apply for an initial term of five years. It is experimental and changes necessary to protect conservation values will be made when required, including amendments to intervention densities and management unit boundaries should they be justified and feasible. Affected parties will be notified and consulted about any such changes.”

“The Department is seeking to avoid boom-bust fluctuations in animal numbers as such events are intrinsically more difficult to manage. To sustain hunting pressure the Department needs to provide opportunities for all the potential control agents - achievement of such an aim requires a careful balancing exercise between competing demands, and acknowledgement of commercial reality.”

And finally, in the words of Dennis Marshall, the Minister of Conservation at the time:

“I acknowledge that this plan is, in part, experimental. It acknowledges that information is inadequate in some areas but that all decisions are, of necessity, balanced in favour of protecting nature conservation values; in other words the plan is precautionary in approach. The plan recognises the need to continue monitoring and undertake further research.”

So, it’s fairly clear the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993 was a best guess scenario given the limited evidence they had at the time. It was experimental, cautious in its approach and was intended to be reviewed in 5 years’ time.

(Note, since the Plan was written, the spelling of thar has changed to the more correct tahr – thanks to work done by the late Bruce Banwell)

In very crude terms, how DOC gathered their population estimate for the plan, was by experienced researchers counting from ground observation positions in a number of locations, and then extrapolating that data across the entire tahr feral range – crafty for the early 90’s but we now know that methodology carries high risk for large inaccuracies.

And time goes on…

-DOC did not undertake a 5-year review of the plan as instructed

-DOC did not undertake adequate vegetation monitoring

-DOC did not undertake adequate tahr population monitoring

What followed was sporadic search and destroy operations undertaken by DOC depending on the government, funding budgets, and empowered individuals and their agendas of the day. For those who don’t know – search and destroy is mass slaughter of animals by helicopter, all left to rot on the hillside, the ugly side of conservation. Sometimes this was nanny culling only – which is logically the breeding base of the herd and has the greatest control on population, but many times this wholesale hillside slaughter included bulls which are highly valued by the hunting community and each one is capable of bringing in $14,000 to the NZ economy.

And for over 20 years this sort of regime continued – random by nature and continually met by conflict between those groups with an interest in tahr. Aside from anecdotal evidence of population and the vegetation health (which varied considerably throughout the feral range), there was no valid research conducted by DOC to show any variables had actually been changed by tahr since 1993.

But many other things did change over this 20 year period:

-Recreational Tahr hunting popularity and pressure on the herd surged, with thousands of Kiwis regularly partaking in the sport for enjoyment, mental and physical wellbeing, and to put food on the table. All while providing much needed income for the small regional towns that surrounded the Tahr range and their many businesses like accommodation & hospitality providers, retail shops, helicopter companies etc.

-Commercial hunting for tahr grew exponentially, with many hunting businesses, guides and jobs being created from the demand of largely overseas hunters and tourists wanting to bag themselves a majestic bull tahr from the only easily huntable population in the world – New Zealand. Research showed each trophy bull harvested contributed $14,000 to the local economy. Bull tahr on private land became an important income stream and lifeline for High Country farmers on their mountainous land in times of low incomes from farming.

-Subsidiary businesses grew and right across New Zealand, companies, individuals and livelihoods started to really benefit from the increased use of the tahr resource and rising popularity of hunting; taxidermists, 4WD accessories providers, retail stores and chains, firearm & ammunition importers, optic manufacturers, clothing companies, tent manufacturers, tramping boot wholesalers, camping equipment sellers, the list goes on.

To liaise with and seek compromise between the growing number of those with an interest in tahr, DOC created the Tahr Liaison Group in the 1990’s (now called the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group) which now includes representatives from: conservation boards, conservation and recreation interest groups, recreational & commercial hunters (who actually implement many of the Plan’s provisions), and Ngai Tahu who now co-govern with DOC. For the most part, this group has been effective and found solutions to satisfy all stake holders.

Fast forward to 2017 - a new coalition government is formed between Labour, NZ First & the Greens, and Eugenie Sage was appointed the Minister of Conservation. Ms Sage was previously a Forest & Bird employee widely known for her opposition to tahr, having previously announced on a current affairs program on nationwide television that she would like to see tahr “eradicated and totally exterminated” – it’s fair to say she had tahr firmly in her sights.

The justification for reducing tahr numbers – the initial guestimate of a 10,000 animal population limit in the 1993 Himalayan Thar Control Plan coupled with recent aerial surveys that estimated the tahr population on public conservation land to be 35,633, with a 95% confidence interval of 17,347 - 53,920 tahr. Notably, recent tahr counts have been undertaken using methods likely to count far more tahr than the methods used to establish the number in the HTCP – systematic searching of 2km by 2km plots by two observers and a pilot in a helicopter.

All this conveniently ignores other parts of the plan that state further research is needed to establish what exactly is an acceptable population limit, that ongoing monitoring is needed, and that the Plan should have been reviewed after 5 years (i.e. in 1998).

The Minister’s first target in 2018 was – 25,000 to 30,000 dead tahr, bulls and all, left to rot on the hillside by June 2019, when there was a real chance the population might not have even totalled the desired cull target, potentially crippling the tahr resource and the many jobs and livelihoods it supports.

The impact – a large debate between interest groups, DOC and Minister Sage, that quickly turned political, dubbed – Tahrmageddon. With virtually zero consultation or understanding of the effects of the cull on people’s lives and recreation, the Minister was determined to railroad it through and get choppers in the air.

The result – thankfully, political pressure meant compromise and for the most part – common sense was met. An effective tahr control regime with less direct impact on those with an interest in tahr was worked out between the Game Animal Council & DOC. It focussed on the breeding capacity of the herd – nanny/ female tahr – and left the highly valued bulls for the hunting community, not only for the commercial guides who make a living off the males, but also for the recreational hunters, as without bulls throughout the tahr range there is very little incentive for recreational hunters to get out there and do their bit for control work.

What we instead saw from the starting population of approximately 35,000 animals in early 2018 was:

-2,930 animals killed by DOC in 2018 in Mt Cook National Park and surrounding areas.

-10,077 animals reported killed to August 2019 from a combination of DOC aerial culling, AATH & off-sets, ZIP and wilderness ballots for guides and recreational hunters, with an additional 1,457 killed by DOC later in 2019. Note this doesn’t include any of the contributions from guides and recreational hunters outside the ballots, which would also be significant – just 40 tahr per week would be 2,000 per year. Totalling about 14,000 tahr removed from public conservation land since June 2018 which doesn’t even include the recreation hunter effort outside ballots.

-Leaving us an estimated population in the order of 20,000 animals of which population modelling predicts there may be only 5,000 or so breeding nannies – the breeding base and population controller of the herd. With no new science or population counts available, anecdotal evidence from those in the hills suggests the population is fairly well nuked in a lot of places, particularly the nanny population.

Roll on mid-June 2020:

-DOC released its new draft control plan for tahr control for the next 12 months, late on the evening of 16th June 2020, just two days before its Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group meeting, and just over a week before wanting to start control work on the 1st of July… another supposed tick in their consultation box without any plans to work with the interest groups or amend their control work. OIA email communication reveals the heat came on from Minister Sage, the Minister with a hatred of Tahr, for DOC to step up control work and slaughter those bulls in National Parks.

So what is the guts of the new plan?

-A three-fold increase in flying and culling hours inside the feral range, from 80hrs the previous year to 250 hours - 110 hours inside the National Parks, 140 hours outside, and most significantly – targeting all animals including bulls in Mt Cook & Westland National Parks– which is where so many people hunt and recreate, guide tourist hunters, conduct AATH, and generate their livelihoods.

-At an average aerial culling rate of 30 animals/hr they stand to remove over 4000 nannies and juveniles from outside the National Parks, which is potentially crippling given we believe there could be only 13,000 nannies and juveniles left across the entire public feral range. While inside the National Parks, they stand to cull over 3000 animals, of which over half will likely be bulls. Given we are already at a much lower base population than two years ago, the effects of the cull will be exponential.

Do the quick math on nanny numbers, add the picture of hundreds, if not thousands, of bulls rotting on the hillsides through our National Parks, and you can quickly see this is eradication in disguise, and the implications are catastrophic.

This will kill the tahr hunting resource, kill jobs, kill regional development, kill any sort of recovery for the hunting industry post Covid-19, kill recreation enjoyed by thousands - along with their mental wellbeing – all because of Minister Sage’s crusade against Tahr.

There is no conservation imperative or chance of a population explosion, at least 15,000 tahr have been shot in the last two years, it’s time to press pause, it’s time to revisit the 27 year old outdated plan - the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993, and it’s time to update it to our current environment – both ecologically, commercially and recreationally – so we actually have an effective management plan going forward to keep on top of and manage the impacts of tahr, while also providing a resource for those who make a living and recreate off tahr.

What is DOC and Minister Sage’s rationale for such a devastating cull and attack on people’s livelihoods? Yes you guessed it, the 10,000 maximum population limit set back in 1993 which was nothing more than a best-guess stab in the dark with limited information. Again, conveniently ignoring all other parts of the plan about it being very experimental, requiring ongoing monitoring & 5 yearly reviews etc.

Enter Forest & Bird (the Minister’s former employer) conveniently taking legal action against the Minister for not culling bulls in National Parks. Just a coincidence, not likely. The National Parks Act 1980 states “except where the Authority otherwise determines, the native plants and animals of the parks shall as far as possible be preserved and the introduced plants and animals shall as far as possible be exterminated” and just like the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993, they argue laws are laws, even if this one was set 40 years ago when some people were adamant the likes of deer, tahr and chamois were going to erode the mountains into the sea and cause mass extinction of native plant species… fact - none of their theories have proved correct or anywhere near close.

We can accept laws are laws, but there’s also doing what is right, what is just and what is fair given a change in time and circumstance, even if it doesn’t strictly follow the law of the day. Why did we change the law and allow women to vote in 1893? Why did we change the law and allow same-sex marriage in 2013? Because we knew it was the right, fair and a reasonable thing to do, and the law of the day was wrong. Exterminating all introduced animals from National Parks, although encouraged by the law of today, is also wrong, as those very animals are loved by thousands of New Zealanders who in fact own the ‘public land’ and National Parks they live in. Given that tahr hunters are one of the highest users of these remote National Parks, shouldn’t their interests be considered? Now is time for change.

You might have noticed the National Parks Act 1980 does actually state “except where the Authority otherwise determines”.  This refers to the NZ Conservation Authority, whose mission is “To ensure for the people of New Zealand, that the richness of New Zealand’s natural and cultural heritage is valued, restored, maintained, and cared for by all, in order to enhance our environment and quality of life”. It’s easy to think any rational person trying to maintain NZ’s cultural heritage and quality of life, would allow a managed population of animals that are highly valued and important to people’s livelihoods to live in National Parks - such as tahr, particularly bulls… and we won’t have a problem on our hands.

But guess what, the Minister of Conservation i.e. Sage – appoints all of the NZCA’s members, and even one of the members is appointed on the recommendation of Forest & Bird… all while there is no requirement to have a hunter representative on there - talk about being highjacked from the beginning!

In the National Parks Policy 2005, trout and game birds have been exempt from the eradication clause in the Act, so the precedent to allow managed populations of valued introduced species is there. The introduced weed hieracium which nobody likes or wants is a far greater threat to the National Parks than a managed, low population of tahr will ever be, but the Minister hasn’t instructed DOC to spend any money on its control or eradication - selective morality to be sure!

The media campaign has already started slowly trying to sway public opinion to believe that there is a mass ‘tahr problem’, repeatedly claiming that tahr are hugely damaging fragile mountain plants without any robust evidence to support their claims. At the same time they regularly use emotive words like ‘Elite trophy hunting’ to distance the commercial hunting industry from the everyday kiwi – as though wealthy foreign tourists spending their dollars in NZ is a bad thing - and we’d be better off having empty mountains and low budget freedom campers defecating around campsites, living cheap and clogging up our limited tourism facilities. It’s also repeatedly claimed that it is hunters who have failed to manage Tahr numbers and cannot be relied upon to control animals, when that couldn’t be further from the truth – DOC was the government department entrusted, employed and required by the HTCP to manage Tahr, monitor their numbers, monitor the vegetation, and repeatedly update and adapt the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 1993 to the needs of the day. This never happened.

Hunters have always only been an afterthought, never fully utilised, consulted, or constructively worked with – more a continual annoyance for DOC because of their ongoing questions of rationale and reason behind DOC’s railroading cull plans. The big problem DOC now faces is that tahr in New Zealand are highly valued – recreationally hunting them has become increasingly popular for everyday kiwis and is now enjoyed by thousands of people, while commercially hunting them with tourists and the flow on expenditure for subsidiary businesses has become a multi-million dollar industry, one that supports the livelihoods of Kiwis right throughout the country.

So we have an animal, near threatened in its home land, but thriving in New Zealand, where it’s also highly valued by many for sport, food, mental & physical health, and is able to generate millions of dollars in tourism income and provide jobs for hundreds – but we still plan to mass slaughter it by helicopter and eventually exterminate it. Surely, common sense would say let’s stop and find out what the magic number is, what is the balance between the needs of the environment and the hunting sector - and guess what, that’s just what the 1993 Plan was intended to do!

None of this is rocket science. Yes, we all accept that the environment needs to come first – without a healthy eco-system, everything fails, our recreation and commercial business fail, so we want to protect and look after our environment just as much, if not more than most. Yes, tahr do eat and walk on tussocks and other native plants, and we don’t need a scientific paper to tell us that too many tahr will have an unacceptable impact on native vegetation. This has happened in some locations in the past, and we don’t want to go back there. Again, what we need to know is what’s the magic number – how many Tahr can our Southern Alps hold with an acceptable amount of browse, while still providing a sustainable hunting resource? Where those tahr are will be just as important as how many of them there are – looking at the number as a whole won’t achieve good conservation outcomes. And all browsing isn’t bad. It is worth remembering that even native birds and insects browse too. Again, no native plants have become extinct in the tahr feral range since tahr first arrived here 116 year ago, and there is no evidence that tahr are a risk at contemporary numbers.

The Game Animal Council is a statutory body that was established in 2013 for the purpose of managing these exact issues and to reduce this ongoing conflict. It did this job perfectly in 2018 to arrive at a workable solution. This time, GAC’s sound advice has been cherry picked by the Department when it suits their own interests.

So where does this leave us – well it leaves us with a lot of questions – firstly to our Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, our Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage, all our local MP’s who are there to represent us and our needs, and lastly – to the general public of New Zealand to see if they believe this proposed mass slaughter of animals and livelihoods of their fellow kiwis is ‘reasonable and fair’.

These are the questions we encourage you to write, to ask, to spread far and wide:

  1. Given there is no conservation imperative for the proposed new culling, DOC has no science to prove otherwise, and 15,000 tahr have been shot over the last two years, why is the Government allowing this utter destruction of the tahr hunting resource and people’s livelihoods and jobs?
  2. Why in a time post Covid-19 when the hundreds of commercial hunting businesses have already lost a whole year’s income (and potentially two years if the borders remain closed), is the Government allowing a cull of such a number and targeting bulls? This will likely bankrupt these businesses and their support of rural NZ and the subsidiary hunting industries. This is from a government that at the same time is boasting about its Covid-19 business support recovery plans.
  3. Why is a Government that prides itself on its investment into mental health and wellness support of New Zealanders, allowing a minister with a personal crusade against tahr to ruin the mental and physical wellbeing of thousands of kiwis at a time when we are all struggling?
  4. Why are Government Departments and Ministers allowed to completely ignore plans and laws for 27 years and then pick and choose parts that suit them to the detriment of thousands of New Zealanders?
  5. Are laws and plans like the National Park Act 1980 and the Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993 out of date and failing to provide for the culture, recreation and values of everyday New Zealanders in 2020?
  6. When did Government consultation of such important and potentially devastating decisions become a two-week process with a pre-determined outcome and start date?
  7. When does an animal that has lived here for over 115 years and valued by many, but is near threatened in its homeland, be allowed to call New Zealand home?
  8. And lastly – how do the NZ people feel about a decision that will totally wreck the livelihoods, recreation and wellness of thousands of New Zealanders, and needlessly leave thousands of magnificent animals rotting and wasting away throughout the Southern Alps?


What is the simple solution?

Halt the cull and allow all interested stakeholders to sit down, review the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 1993 and put a sound management system in place for tahr going forward that is based on good science and protects native flora & fauna, while also allowing for recreational and commercial hunting. None of these are mutually exclusive or need to be at the expense of one another, we simply need the opportunity to think this through properly after 27 years of conflict and failed management by the those in charge.