Rapid spread of wallabies in New Zealand highlights major threat

Wallabies are bounding across New Zealand, threatening native vegetation and competing with cows and sheep for pasture.

Tourists driving across New Zealand’s rugged countryside may be surprised to see signs warning about the spread of a destructive invasive Aussie animal. Echoing an American western, authorities are urging motorists to report wallabies “dead or alive” amid fears the marsupials could soon cost the economy NZ$84 million a year ($79 million).

Small colonies of wallabies have recently been discovered in Vietnam and the UK, but the mobs living across the ditch on the North and South Islands have been there for over a century. The problem for New Zealand is the wallabies are spreading rapidly, gaining 2km of ground a year, harming the environment and competing for land with livestock.

While New Zealanders maintain a healthy rivalry with Australia, authorities maintain the plan to wipe out the marsupials is nothing personal. Sam Beaumont, the head of Biosecurity New Zealand's $6.9 million a year wallaby control program, reassured Yahoo News he's aware wallabies do have special significance to Australians.

Kiwis are being urged to report all signs of wallabies, including droppings on grass (right). Source: Michael Dahlstrom/MPI
Kiwis are being urged to report all signs of wallabies, including droppings on grass (right). Source: Michael Dahlstrom/MPI

“It's not that we've got anything against the animal. There's a place for them and obviously that's in Australia. And not in Aotearoa New Zealand,” he said.

New Zealand wallaby facts

  • South Australia's mainland tammar wallaby was listed as extinct in the wild in the 1920s, but a feral population was later rediscovered on New Zealand's Kawau Island.

  • In December, the discovery of dead wallabies on a highway in Northland, hundreds of kilometres from known populations, sparked alarm. But authorities now believe they probably fell from a truck after being shot by hunters elsewhere.

  • Wallabies were first introduced to the North Island around the Rotorua Lakes area.

  • The multi-agency plan to eradicate wallabies includes councils, iwi (Maori tribes), and private landholders and is called the Tipu Mātoro National Wallaby Eradication Programme.

Two maps showing the predicted spread of wallabies in New Zealand.
Created in 2015, these maps show predicted distributions of dama and parma wallabies (North Island) and Bennett's wallabies (South Island) from that year until 2065. Source: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

Why are wallabies in New Zealand?

Five species of wallabies were introduced into New Zealand in the 1800s, mostly for hunting, but it’s believed some escaped from private zoos. They aren’t as destructive to the country’s wildlife as predatory species like stoats and pigs, but like goats and deer, they can destroy native vegetation.

New Zealand has the highest number of introduced mammals in the world, and the second highest number of introduced birds. While the invaders are thriving, around 74 per cent of its native terrestrial birds are threatened with extinction.

Beaumont is hopeful wallabies could be contained by shooting and poisoning programs by 2025. “Wallabies are still relatively located around the areas where they were first released. So there’s still a chance we can contain them, and with a bit of luck eliminate them,” he said.

A vehicle painted with camouflage and an anti-wallaby sign. And a council worker standing next to the vehcile.
A vehicle has been painted with camouflage by a council involved in wallaby control. Source: Bay of Plenty Regional Council

The national program to eradicate wallabies began in 2020, and an advertising campaign was launched last summer which immediately led to tips being phoned in from members of the public.

This season even more signs have been erected on roadsides, and a government truck decked out with a military-style camouflage paint-job and anti-wallaby messaging has been cruising the streets around the hot-spring town of Rotorua, which is ground zero for the spread of the marsupials.

Making the public aware of the problem not only helps authorities identify and target existing wallaby colonies, it also stops people from inadvertently spreading them further. “People could potentially put them in the back of the car and move them around. And we've seen some examples of that where wallabies have turned up very far from where they normally are,” Beaumont said.

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