(CNN) — When the British explorer Captain James Cook was first exploring the South Pacific, he told his crew that the first man to spot land would get two gallons of rum.
The steep Alps and lush valleys of the South Island create some of the most iconic vistas in New Zealand.
Centuries later, on an average Saturday in 1998, a different kind of explorer pulled into a farm two hours south of Auckland.
He was a location scout for director Peter Jackson. They’d done an aerial tour of the region’s rolling, sheep-covered hills and deemed it the perfect setting for a little movie series called “The Lord of the Rings.”
Captain Cook’s arrival changed everything for this land and the Maori — the indigenous people who first found it — but Hollywood’s discovery put those changes on steroids.
For years, New Zealand’s biggest problem was “brain drain,” as the country’s best and brightest took yearlong jobs or sabbaticals in Australia, Europe or America and never came back. But as more people realized that the Middle Earth, Narnia and Pandora on their HD screens are really #nofilter locations in New Zealand, foreign interest in this faraway fantasy land peaked.
If Hobbiton was anything like Auckland, the average hole would go for a million dollars.
A “hobbit” hole on the Alexander Farm near Matamata, New Zealand.
Now as New Zealand wrestles with what people to let in, most are united in what kinds of wild animals they want out.
The government’s answer: All of them. Everything with teeth instead of a beak, fur instead of feathers.
Because when man first found these islands at the bottom of the world, there was nothing but birds. Aside from a couple of tiny bat species, New Zealand has no native land mammals. And with no predators to eat them, many of the native birds — including their beloved kiwi — never learned to fly.
The Maori hunted the biggest birds to extinction and the vermin that arrived on European ships did a number on the rest.
They aim to poison or trap every invasive critter on the island — hundreds of millions of rats and mice, weasels and stoats, possums and feral cats — and make the entire country predator-free by 2050.
Each year, government helicopters fly across gorgeous landscapes, spreading tons of cereal bait or carrot chunks laced with 1080, a toxin so deadly, it’s banned in many countries. The vast majority of Kiwi scientists and environmental groups defend the practice, while protesters are dismissed as fringe.
A hand-reared kiwi at the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Conservation Center in Rotorua, New Zealand.
I went wondering whether this breathtaking, thrill-seeking nation at the bottom of the world can stay so pristine now that their secret is out. And I found that it is a lot easier to discover paradise than to keep it that way.