Pete Peeti flicks off the headlights, cuts the ignition and lets his truck roll silently down a bush track, deep in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island. Dusk slips into night and rain falls in thick curtains.
“Close your door quietly when you come out,” said Peeti. He slung his gun over his shoulder and scanned the track with high-tech thermal goggles. “The hardiest will brave the rain,” he said quietly.
The glasses make the landscape look ghostly – skeletal trees and dappled shadows. Barely a minute passes before a splash of bright light moves in frame 30 meters away. It grazes for a moment, and then with the unmistakable bounce of a wallaby, hops to a new patch of grass.
Peeti sank flat against the wet earth and straightened his shot. But for the rain, the night is quiet with anticipation. His gun cracks. “Got it,” he said and disappeared into the darkness to fetch the beast.
In front of the truck’s headlights, the hunter quickly guts the wallaby and taps the entrails into the bush for raptors to prey on. When he jumps back into the driver’s seat, he brings with him the metallic smell of blood.
“While everyone dreams, I’m here killing,” he grins. “I am their worst nightmare.”
If Peeti feels like it, he can kill 100 dama wallabies in this patch of forest in one night – a small dip in the population of thousands that have become pests in this one 55,000 hectare block of forest above Lake Rotoiti, a smaller dip in the exploding population invading the region.
“The wallaby has reached pest proportions,” says Peeti. “They eat all the shrubs, baby seedlings – they stop the natives from growing.”
All along the forest paths are the signs: chewed up native toes, patches of grass that have grazed to the ground and clawed wallaby tracks.
Peeti – who is also a culinary and hunting TV star – has been killing wallabies and all sorts of other pests, including deer, pigs, possums and rabbits, for more than 20 years. Recently he was contracted by the Bay Area Council as a wallaby pest controller. It’s a sign of the times – the country is finally realizing just how big a problem the imported marsupials are becoming.
“Only in the last few years have people started to wake up,” he says. “Left unattended, they will spread like wildfire.”
‘We have a problem’
Wallabies were introduced to New Zealand in 1870, when Governor Sir George Gray shipped them from their native Australia to Kawau Island, 45 km north of Auckland, to add to his collection of exotic animals. They were later released for hunting in other parts of the country.
The country is now home to five introduced wallaby species and although it is difficult to measure the overall population, it is estimated that up to 1.5 million hectares in the South Island and up to half a million in the North Island are infested is. If left unchecked, wallabies could spread across one-third of the country over the next 50 years, according to a report written for the Ministry of Primary Industries. By 2025, they could cost the country $84 million a year in damaged ecosystems and lost agricultural income.
“They will eat any palatable species … if they are in the remaining native forest, they will eat the understory, and those that have large areas of overlap with agricultural land – they will compete for pasture with livestock,” says Bruce Warburton, one of the report ‘s authors and the wildlife ecology science team leader at Manaaki Whenua, Landcare Research.
“They have as much impact as goats can,” says Warburton.
In particular, Dama wallabies have been shown to have significant unwanted impacts on native vegetation, which has effects on ecosystems.
Warburton says the population began to increase when farmers decided to take wallaby control into their own hands, following the introduction of the Biosecurity Act 1993, which allowed farmers to refuse to pay councils to control pests.
“The results have been variable,” says Warburton. “Some farmers did a very good job and others didn’t.”
“Over the intervening years, wallabies have increased in numbers and spread. It’s only when they start to be seen outside what is obviously their containment area and in high numbers, people think ‘we have a problem’.
Members of the public contribute to the spread by taking them out of containment areas and illegally “liberating” them to other parts of the country.
In 2020, the government committed $27.4 million over four years to eradicate and control wallabies as part of its Jobs for Nature scheme – a significant injection of money into the problem, notes Warburton.
It’s becoming a collective effort at eradication – from government and councils to iwi and individual conservationists and hunters, some of whom make a significant amount of pocket money to eradicate the pests.
‘It’s Way Too Late’
Holly Sands, 16, throws a frozen wallaby carcass onto the deck of her twin brother’s womb. She is stacking carcass upon carcass of decapitated, declawed and pitted grey-brown bodies – ready to be made into pet food. “Some of these really big ones are worth about $20,” she said, proudly grabbing a large male by the hind legs.
Holly has a freezer full. It’s a fairly profitable hobby – selling the wallabies, plus a few possums she sells for meat and fur, has enabled her to buy a $10,000 car. Now she is paying her way through flight school.
“The average wallaby is worth about $7 because it’s about $3 a kilo of meat which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when we get 30 a night…
The Sands Family Farm – an impressive piece of land with its own volcanic crater – lies just above Lake Ōkāreka, where wallabies were first released into the Bay of Plenty region in 1912. The family has operated deer, cattle and sheep there for 11 years. .
When they first arrived, the farm was overrun with wallabies.
“There were so many here, they ate up all the pastures, and we couldn’t grow crops or hay fields. They ate everything,” says Holly.
“We shot about 11,000 … but there’s definitely a lot more out there. If we stopped doing it for a few months or a year, they would all come back just as bad, if not worse.”
Holly jokes that wallabies will be extinct by the time she completes her commercial flying licence. But the reality is more sobering.
“It’s far too late,” said Peeti. Keeping numbers down is the next best thing, and a task he takes seriously as a native man. “We don’t do that [have ancestral links] to the wallaby, we don’t have them in our korero [narrative]… it does not belong to New Zealand”, he says, quoting Ken Raureti from Ngāti Rangitihi – an iwi located in the region.
“Here in Aotearoa we love Aussies visiting us, especially with the rugby, but one thing we don’t like is the wallaby – they can get it back,” he says with a smile, before looking back at the moved country.