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Possum History

The History of Possums in New Zealand

Two unidentified men with a substantial opposum catch. 
Image reference number: 1/2-110438-F.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington,
New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

When the Australian Brushtail Possum (which is very different from the American Opossum) was first released into New Zealand in 1837 (becoming successfully established around 1858) with the express purpose of establishing a commercial fur trade, our colonial New Zealand fore-fathers had no idea of the terrible impact that possums would have on the delicate natural balance of the native New Zealand eco-system.

Without natural predators, this furry cat-sized marsupial thrived in the lush New Zealand native bush and quickly become a major ecological problem killing native trees and competing with native animals and birds for food.

Initially in the early day’s possum's where protected to allow their numbers to increase for the fur trade. There where 36 batches of possums imported and released into New Zealand mostly by the Acclimatisation Societies between 1858 until about 1921 when the New Zealand Government prohibited further releases.

There are records that show a release of 21 grey possums into an area of the South Island near Dunedin in 1894, when the regulations where temporarily lifted in 1912 over 10,000 possum skins where taken from that very same area in a very brief time period. So in only 18 years the population in that limited area had exploded demonstrating how well the possum had adapted to the New Zealand bush.

Full protection was relaxed and the law changed so that possum trapping was heavily licensed and regulated to only 3 months of the year although poaching still happened all year round. By 1946 all regulations where lifted and possums where declared a noxious pest.

Historical Lessons from Rabbits

Many anti-fur people will argue that by allowing a fur trade to exist, you are by default making sure that the possum will never be eradicated in New Zealand. The NZ government has come to accept that the possum may never be completely eliminated. The goal now is to control numbers to a manageable level that allows the native bush to regenerate and native bird and insect species to recover, especially in National Park sanctuary areas. The NZ government currently spends around 80 million dollars per annum on possum control using 1080 poison that is banned in some other first world countries.
Outlawing the possum industry will not assure the destruction of the possum in New Zealand. In fact once you take away the incentive to hunt possum the effort and money needed to reduce possum numbers will increase hugely.
History shows that rabbits were also introduced into New Zealand in the 1800’s, frozen rabbit meat and rabbit skins where a huge multi million pound (it was pounds not dollars in those days) export industry in New Zealand for many decades. But by the early 1900’s they realised that rabbits were out of control. The earlier introduction in 1870 of stoats and weasels to keep the rabbit population in check had failed, there where much easier and slower moving meals for the stoats and weasels in the form of New Zealand's native flightless birds.

In 1947 the Rabbit Destruction Council was established and among other things, levies were imposed on the sale of rabbit skins. In 1952 records show that 3,000,000 rabbit skins and 1,000,000 carcasses where exported so the industry continued to flourish and the rabbit population did too.

On the 11th October 1956 the rabbit industry was completely de-commercialised. New legislation was passed into law that made the sale of rabbit skins or rabbit carcasses for export, or even for sale within New Zealand illegal. This was intended to “ensure that neither skin or carcass had commercial value, which would in turn ensure that the eradication campaign would not suffer because of any commercial interest wishing to retain sizable rabbit populations”.
Unfortunately the rabbit continues to be a major problem today even after the illegal release of the Rabbit Calici-virus Disease in 1997 by desperate farmers in the South Island.
Stopping the rabbit meat and fur industry did not lead to the eradication of the rabbits and we believe it won't for the possums either.

Grading rabbit skins. [ca 1930s]. -
Reference number: PAColl-6348-02.
ssion of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington,
New Zealand, must be obtained
 before any re-use of this image.

Possums are an introduced species that is threatening New Zealand's unique delicate native environment

It is a fact that the exotic introduced species of Australian Brushtail Possum is a major ecological threat in New Zealand. Rats and stoats are also major introduced predators in the New Zealand bush.

By investing in a possum fur product you are contributing to the survival and regeneration of the unique native New Zealand forest, birds and insect species, many of whom are now threatened by extinction.

Because of its long isolation from the rest of the world, New Zealand has extraordinary and unique flora and fauna. About 80% of New Zealand's flora is endemic, meaning that it is found only in New Zealand. Many of our native birds have become flightless leaving them vulnerable to introduced predators. The possum has no natural predators in New Zealand to keep their numbers down naturally like they do in their native Australia. Unchecked they continue to breed and numbers are escalating out of control every year.

Some New Zealand broad leaf tree species are absolute delicacies for possums - and these same species are also some of the countries most endangered. Possums will seek out their favourite food ahead of other species and eat them out to extinction – stripping entire trees bare of leaves so that they die. This leads to competition for food with native forest birds, changes in forest composition and eventually causes forest canopy collapse. It was recently discovered that the supposedly vegetarian possum also eats native birds' eggs, baby chicks and native insects. So, as well as destroying our native birds' habitat and food sources, they prey on eggs and chicks of native New Zealand bird species like the Tui, Kereru, and the endangered Kokako. The predation of bird eggs and chicks has led them to be referred to as "reluctant folivores", meaning that they eat foliage to survive but prefer other foods in their diet as well.

It is estimated that there are approximately 30-40 million possums in New Zealand, and they devour nearly 8 million tonnes of vegetation annually. The New Zealand Department of Conservation and National Possum Control Agencies are trying to keep possum numbers under control by declaring possums a pest and encouraging their eradication.

Possums are not hunted specifically for their fur; the fur is a by-product of the huge effort to save the New Zealand environment and native species. The New Zealand Government spends eighty million dollars a year on possum control. Most possums killed by the New Zealand Government using poison are left in the bush to rot and this natural resource is wasted.

Possums are known carriers of bovine tuberculosis, which provides a major threat to the New Zealand dairy, beef and deer farming industries. Over the last five years, possum control programmes have been the main driver of a 60% reduction in TB levels in New Zealand's cattle and deer herds.

A very small amount of possum meat is used to make cat and dog food (sourced from poison and TB free areas), and in general they are not currently eaten by people in New Zealand very often. You will probably not find it on a restaurant menu. Some possum meat sourced from strictly controlled areas has been exported to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia where it is known as the delicacy 'Kiwi Bear'. The laws controlling the use of possum meat have recently been changed, although they are still subject to strict conditions.
Keulemans, John Gerrard, 1842-1912 :Kokako. [Between 1899 and 1906?]. 
Reference number: D-033-004. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library,
Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.