Drones, solar-powered self-baiting traps and "electronic sniffers" are among top ideas a renowned Auckland University ecologist has suggested for tomorrow's pest control solutions, as a new conservation competition gets underway.

Between now and October 2, Kiwis are being invited to share their ideas for the next big thing in environment protection as part of this year's WWF's Conservation Innovation Awards.

Innovators were asked to come up with new tools, gadgets and concepts to aid the work of frontline conservation volunteers throughout the country.

Designed to help innovators fast-track their ideas to development, the awards fall into three categories - product, community project and research - and offer $25,000 prize money to each category winner.


Entry in this year's awards - the second time they've been held - were being received via a new crowd-sourcing website, and entrants were asked to submit their ideas to wwf.org.nz/innovation.

"Entries are posted onto the crowdsourcing platform, registered site users then comment and feedback on the ideas," awards co-ordinator Lee Barry said.

"The power of the crowd is gaining momentum and for the Conservation Innovation Awards this collective approach means that ideas for furthering conservation work, which will ultimately benefit all New Zealanders, can be fine-tuned to their full potential."

Entries will be judged by an independent panel - including Silicon Valley entrepreneur Matthew Monahan and conservation visionary Devon McLean - which will look for ideas that have practical application and clear benefit for grass roots conservation groups.

Last year's award winning ideas included a mobile phone predator alert, a research tool enabling owners to monitor their behaviour and impact on wildlife, and a community-wide initiative to reduce the town's emissions and promote renewable energy.

Five ideas to help save our birds from predators

To mark the awards, the Herald asked ecologist Dr James Russell to propose five ideas that may help win the battle for a predator-free New Zealand


"Drones are fast becoming a part of our everyday life, and the laws for their use are struggling to keep up with the applications," Dr Russell said.

"Drones could have application in pest control for everything from precision deployment of toxin, bait stations or traps to active search and detection of newly invading pests."

Species specificity: "Current pest control tools are broad spectrum and can have unintended impacts on other species.

"Species recognition technology using the latest detection technology could guarantee 100 per cent identification of targets before killing.

"Species genome maps may help devise targeted species-specific control tools with no impact on other species."

Solar-powered self-baiting traps: "Multi-use self-resetting traps are already becoming a powerful tool in pest control today, but must still be serviced after a set period.

"Traps that could reset themselves infinitely and use captures as bait for the next individual would allow a region to be treated forever, so long as the cost per device was sufficiently affordable."

Electronic sniffers: "Animals are much more reliant that humans on other senses such as smell.

"Developing an artificial device which could detect odours with the same reliably as animals would drastically increase the ability to locate survivors or reinvaders during control programs.

"If this could be attached to a mobile device it could then be used to track down the individuals."

Social marketing: "Eradicating pests from an area requires the complete support of everyone in the community, whatever method they prefer to use.

"With so many people in New Zealand already contributing to conservation, new apps will allow people to network better and identify local areas of pest hotspots to respond in real-time."

Could light be used against pests?

Meanwhile, a Waikato University researcher will use an $85,000 scholarship to help her investigate an interesting form of non-lethal pest control, using light.

In Europe, where there are issues with light pollution, scientists have found that native species are deterred by light - here in New Zealand, PhD researcher Bridgette Farnworth will see whether this works on nocturnal rodents, and mice in particular.

There had been cases overseas of common house mice eating the chicks of large sea birds, and in New Zealand, the rodents were harder to eradicate from conservation areas and found it easier than larger pests to exploit small gaps in sanctuary fences.

Part of her research will be done at Waikato's Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, which is protected by a 47-kilometre predator-proof fence that rings 3400ha of native forest.

When a tree fell and broke part of the fence, or if gaps were created through flooding, mice were the first to invade the forest - and there were no mammals inside to predate on them.

"At Maungatautari I want to see if illumination will deter mice from reinvading," she said.

Her initial research has involved working with mice in the lab and using rodent-proof pens.

"Early indications are that mice will spend less time foraging under illumination, but we need to test frequency, light strength, habituation, etcetera, and how other species respond to increased light."

A previous study by another student, Trevor Connolly, indicated that rats were able to move within the roll along the top of the predator-proof fence, so she was also planning to observe their behaviour under light with infrared cameras.

"I'll also be looking to see if mice also move within the roll and whether they make use of it when rats are absent.

"No one has yet studied if mice are travelling within the roll on top of these predator proof fences within the sanctuary or if light could deter them from doing so."

The study comes as Landcare Research scientists begin trialing their own clever concept, which turns the sense of smell that predators such as stoats, rats and possums rely on to hunt against them.

The million-dollar study will see generic bird scents, like that of chicken, released in native bird habitats before the birds arrive there to breed.

The researchers expect that the predators will be drawn to the area by their nose, and, after finding no prey to reward it, will rule out the odour as being a worthwhile cue for food.

Some time later, after the deceived predators have moved along, the birds get a window of opportunity to breed before the predators "relearn" to follow the smell.

This approach has already been successfully proven in an Australian experiment which led to a 60 per cent increase in the survival rate of nests over a short period.