Mātauranga Māori of naturally occurring toxins in native plants: Potential for Possum Control

Māori have voiced a range of concerns regarding the aerial application of 1080 bait and expressed the view that alternatives to 1080 are needed. One idea is that there may be toxins already present in plants in New Zealand's ecosystems that could perform well as alternative pest control tools.

This research project documented mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and scientific literature of plants that have bioactive properties, including those used for rongoā, traditional Māori medicines that can be poisonous if used in high concentrations, and those known to be toxic. Three hui were held with Tūhoe representatives to discuss cultural issues surrounding the use of toxins in the environment and identify key attributes for acceptable pest control. In addition, an extensive literature review was completed in relation to the occurrence of toxins in New Zealand plants and their recorded effects on humans and animals. With this information, a checklist of key attributes was created to identify particular plant species worthy of further investigation.

This first stage of the research completed in 2009 found a surprising number of New Zealand plants with known toxic properties. Eleven native plant species were recorded as having poisoned people and stock, with others shown to have some toxic effect. Of the non-native plants studied, 10 species are particularly important due to the frequency and severity of poisoning of people and stock, and many more are known to be poisonous. The study also identified nine species of native plants used by Māori for their anti-fertility properties. This could be a particularly important area of future research, allowing the development of baits that render pest populations infertile. Some of the most promising native plants are tutu, karaka, ngaio, porokaiwhiri, poroporo, and kōwhai.

The team moved on to the second stage of the research with funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation. The team tested the most promising plants and their toxic components for toxicity against animal pests, and tutu emerged as the flagship example of a naturally occuring toxin.

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