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Is the Auckland Zoo out of touch with modern conservation?

NI Saddleback. Photographer M. Sanders

Wild birds in a cage...Is the Auckland Zoo out of touch with modern conservation in Aotearoa New Zealand?

The tīeke, or North Island saddleback, is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s greatest conservation success stories. They were reduced to just one island population of 500 birds in the 1960s. But an ambitious translocation programme, initiated by the New Zealand Wildlife Service, continued by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, and more recently by community based conservation groups, has increased the global population to at least 10 000 birds scattered across 18 islands and 5 protected mainland sites. North Island saddlebacks are now secure and extinction is very unlikely.

The critical aspect of this conservation success story is that it focussed on creating new free living populations in natural habitats. This work with wild populations has contributed to New Zealand’s outstanding international reputation for innovative and effective conservation management. This is a far cry from the conservation ethic of the 1800s which involved shooting birds such as saddlebacks, stuffing them, and then displaying them in a glass case.

The Auckland Zoo has decided to celebrate North Island saddlebacks during conservation week 2016, but in quite a contrasting manner. They recently visited Tiritiri Matangi, one of the protected, free living populations, captured 10 wild birds and transferred them to the zoo where they will spend the rest of their lives in captivity in cages far smaller and simpler than the natural habitat they were born to.

So why is the Auckland Zoo capturing wild saddlebacks and confining them to cages for the rest of their lives? It is rare for modern zoos to capture wild animals and there is no need for a captive saddleback breeding programme. The zoo could never produce meaningful numbers of saddlebacks, there are considerable disease risks when transferring birds from zoos to the wild and captive bred birds often fare poorly after release.

That leaves “conservation advocacy”. This argument, which the Auckland Zoo will likely use, states that by seeing saddlebacks in a cage people will both appreciate, and be more likely to support, conservation of saddlebacks and conservation more generally. The problem with this argument is that it is notoriously difficult to get any proof that it actually works. And it also seems a very strange message to send during conservation week, especially to our children – Let’s celebrate New Zealand conservation by putting birds in a cage purely so people can look at them? This is not modern conservation.

It might have been acceptable when the general public had little opportunity to actually see saddlebacks in the wild. But in the Auckland region alone there are five island populations, one of which is managed in partnership with the Auckland Zoo, which can be easily reached by public ferries or private boat. There is also a thriving mainland population at Tāwharanui Open Sanctuary that can be seen for free simply by driving to the park, the petrol required to get there from Auckland costing less than admission to the Auckland Zoo. And if you live in Wellington you might be lucky enough to have wild saddlebacks from Zealandia visit your back yard. As Predator Free New Zealand progresses this will be a privilege that all New Zealanders might one day enjoy.

The director of the Auckland Zoo recently stated in the Guardian that the old model of conservation was dead and that people had to manage species to secure their survival. In a sense he was right and this is exactly what is going on in Aotearoa New Zealand. Community

groups right across the country have done the hard yards controlling introduced predators, restoring natural habitats and reintroducing saddlebacks and other species to create wild and free living populations – not by putting them in cages.

This is the saddleback story we should be celebrating. I have been personally involved in 12 saddleback translocations, working with a huge swathe of the Aotearoa New Zealand conservation community, from Northland Hapu to Taranaki dairy farmers. They know what saddlebacks need and they are providing it to establish wild and free populations in their communities.

So the Auckland Zoo’s move to capture 10 wild birds for a life time of captivity seems out of step with modern conservation in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is not quite the stuffed birds in a glass case of the Victorian era but it is close and nowhere near the actual saddleback conservation being undertaken by community conservation groups. The New Zealand Department of Conservation have also had a longstanding policy of not capturing wild animals simply for display, so it is odd that they granted the Auckland Zoo permission to do so.

Putting animals in a cage is the old way of doing conservation. Protecting and establishing free living wild populations is the new way. So is it right for the Auckland Zoo to celebrate such a tremendous conservation story in such a retrograde manner - especially for the 10 previously wild saddlebacks that will spend the rest of their lives in a cage?

Dr Kevin Parker, Massey University and Parker Conservation

Dr Parker is a conservation scientist whose work revolves around reintroducing birds to establish wild populations. He has worked with North Island saddlebacks for 12 years, including publications in leading international scientific journals and books. He realises that the issue of putting wild animals in captivity is essentially an ethical debate and what is wrong for one person is right for another. He also recognises that the Auckland Zoo has dedicated staff and a role to play in New Zealand conservation. However, he thinks the issue of capturing wild animals simply for display in zoos should at least be debated by the NZ public, especially during Conservation Week.

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