Former All Black Luke Romano has thrown his weight behind hunters as they protest the killing of thousands of Himalayan tahr in the Southern Alps, becoming the movement’s highest profile supporter.
The World Cup winning lock, who also works as a hunting guide, is calling for the Government to come to a resolution with hunters as the cull gets underway for another season.
“You can see from the outcry from the hunters, from the people affected, that these animals mean so much to them,” he told 1 NEWS.
“This is the only place you can freely hunt them, and they're such a great resource to New Zealand.”
The Department of Conservation has been working to kill at least 20,000 tahr in mountains of the central South Island to protect the native plants that make up our alpine environments. The animals are native to Tibet and were introduced here at the start of the century for hunting.
DOC is following a statutory plan which requires them to bring the population down to 10,000 but have, until the start of this season, been leaving most trophy bull tahr for hunters.
Operations director Ben Reddiex says they are now working to kill all tahr in the two national parks in the area, but claims there will be plenty left on other land for hunters.
He contends that most hunting takes place away from the parks, on private and Crown pastoral lease land.
“There are abundant tahr that can meet the needs of both commercial and recreational hunting, but also protect our special alpine environment,” he says.
“The national parks where we are controlling all tahr is only 26 per cent of public conservation land. There's 425,000 hectares of conservation estate where we are only targeting high densities and only juveniles and females.”
But the cull has met with strong opposition from hunters, with an online petition reaching more than 50,000 signatures, and protests moving to Auckland this weekend.
Mr Romano is now coming on board as the cause’s most prominent supporter.
“I'm just putting my hand up there, [saying], ‘Hey, this is affecting me. It's something I'm passionate about and I want to see it resolved,'” he said.
“They're as much of this country as we are. They've been here for well over 100 years. They're just as much a part of that environment as anything else up there.”
The longtime hunter takes paying guests from all over the world on trips, chasing the bulls as trophies.
“They bring in tens of millions of dollars a year to the New Zealand economy, not only through hunting but also through the tourism sector as well,” he said.
“Thousands of New Zealanders come down here to the South Island to specifically hunt them, because they are one of the most hard and sought after trophy animals in New Zealand.”
He also believes the Government should update the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan governing DOC, saying it was put into statute nearly 30 years ago in 1993. It need to be brought into the modern day, he said.
However, it has a strong defender in Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, who says it remains fit for purpose.
“The provisions in the plan are robust, the data is current - based on three population surveys over the recent years,” she said.
“The national parks need to be safe havens for our native plants and wildlife and that's what DOC's focusing on - implementing the law to ensure that our national parks are safe havens.”
Consultation for this season is still underway, but only after a legal challenge from hunters, with the results to be revealed later this month.
And with protests continuing, Mr Romano is hoping the two sides can find a middle ground.
“It does have an affect on a lot of people,” he said.
“They need to listen to what the affected parties have got to say, and just work out a plan so both parties can agree and we can move forward and actually work together to manage the resource.”
However it works out, it's sure to evoke deep passion on both sides.