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Lee Speech: Cooperative Islands Initiative

17 April 2002 Speech Notes

Speech To Launch The Cooperative Islands Initiative Dealing With Invasive Alien Species

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa - greetings to you all.

I am pleased to be here with you this evening to mark the launch of the Cooperative Islands Initiative dealing with Invasive Alien Species.

The Initiative arose from the margins of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice 'six' at Montreal, in March last year.

Small island states proposed that international cooperation be brought to bear on managing invasive alien species. The idea was picked up and developed on their behalf by the New Zealand government and the World Conservation Union's Invasive Species Specialist Group.

I am happy to support the initiative as Minister of Conservation for an island nation where highly successful invasive alien species pose a constant challenge to our unique biological diversity.

Before I talk more about the initiative, I would like to share briefly with you some of New Zealand's experiences. We face enormous problems but are having some successes. And we are committed to sharing what we have learned with others.


Isolation is a strong theme running through New Zealand’s biological history.

After splitting off from other continents 80 million years ago, the New Zealand landmass became the stage for the evolution of plants, animals and ecosystems so distinctive that we have been described as the closest scientists will get to studying life on another planet.

Ninety per cent of our indigenous species are endemic - found nowhere else on this planet - and this makes our unique biological diversity internationally important.

By contrast, Great Britain, which separated from continental Europe 10,000 years ago, has only two endemic species - one plant and one animal. Half a dozen islands near our largest city, Auckland, have a greater level of endemism than the whole of Britain.

Hand-in-hand with recognising the importance of our biological diversity comes responsibility. Its continued existence is almost entirely up to us. It is a challenging task.

The long isolation and slow evolution of our unique plants and animals makes them especially vulnerable to new changes.

And inevitably that change came. New Zealand was one of the last large land areas to be settled by humans, but those settlers, and the exotic species they brought with them, had a dramatic impact on its indigenous biological diversity.

New Zealand has effectively suffered indigenous biodiversity loss of the order of a major catastrophe!


The first humans, Polynesians, came to New Zealand over 1000 years ago.

A new wave of migration from Europe occurred in the mid-1800’s. Humans have introduced a myriad of new species of plants and animals, building an agriculture industry based on millions of exotic sheep and cattle.

In a relatively brief time, lizards, frogs, insects and birds have fallen victim to the massive plague of rats. Offshore islands were an important refuge for many species.

The result today is that many of New Zealand’s native species have been driven to extinction, or to the precipice of extinction, by the impact of introduced pests.

Invasive pests and weeds have become the greatest environmental threat facing New Zealand’s biodiversity on land. They have even surpassed habitat loss, which has been curbed through a range of actions including a recent government decision to protect an additional 130,000 hectares of internationally significant rainforest on our South Island's west coast.

The economic cost to New Zealand of these invaders is substantial.

My country bases much of its economy on primary production, and this in turn relies on and benefits from the use of biological resources and the services provided by healthy ecosystems.

In 1999, the costs of pests and weeds to New Zealand was estimated to be more than NZ$840 million a year - about one per cent of our gross domestic product.

It is ironic that many of the species now regarded as feral pests were originally introduced in the hope of positive economic gain, such as possums, rabbits, deer and goats. Plants introduced for agricultural purposes have also now become serious agricultural weeds such as gorse, thistle and blackberry.

Even if New Zealand is able to stop all new introductions of pest organisms immediately, the annual cost of pest control could well continue to rise because it is possible that some alien species already established have yet to make their invasive presence fully felt.


In the face of so many threats, we have been innovative, inventive and dogged in our efforts to solve the problems caused by invasive alien species.

Beginning with our Wildlife Service more than 20 years ago, New Zealand has developed an international reputation for its management of island habitats and endangered species. Many practical solutions have been developed, with initiatives in eradication methods, translocation of species, manipulation of populations and habitat restoration.

Because islands provide the most cost-effective method for protecting many species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, a great deal of New Zealand effort has gone into creating predator-free offshore islands.

New Zealand first tried its hand at eradicating rats from an offshore island in the early 1980s. The target was the 150-hectare Breaksea Island, off the southern west coast of the South Island.

Its relatively small size meant an intensive network of poison bait stations was successful in removing the rodents and turning that island into a sanctuary for endangered lizards.

Since then, variations of this and other techniques have been tested on a variety of islands with different terrain and different rodent species.

To date, more than 50 islands have been freed from the plague of rats and mice.

As techniques improve, eradication projects on islands are becoming more ambitious and larger islands are being targeted. The size of operations has increased by two orders of magnitude in the space of just 10 years.

Building on all that has gone before, the largest island restoration project in the world was carried out last year.

In July, in bitterly cold winter conditions and with wind gusting up to 240 km/hour, an aerial Norway rat eradication operation took place on the 11,300-hectare Campbell Island, in the sub-Antarctic Southern Ocean.

If confirmed successful, it will be a landmark for New Zealand conservation and provide a huge new predator-free sanctuary for birds such as the rare Campbell Island teal and the Campbell Island snipe. The snipe was only discovered in 1997.


With one of the world’s worst records for extinctions, necessity has forced New Zealand to develop successful strategies to combat invasive alien species.

We are also committed to sharing what we have learned to help build international capability.

New Zealand expertise has helped remove:

- Rats from Mauritius

- Kiore and cats from islands in the Pitcairn Group

- Rabbits and mice from Madeira

- Rabbits from islands in the Azores, and

- Rodents from 12 small islands in the Southern Lagoon, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island

And, along with Mauritius, we are now providing management advice to the Ecuadorian Government for a six-year project to control invasive species in the Galapagos Islands which began last May.

While 97% of the Galapagos land area is protected as national park, past and potential future invasions of alien species pose a great threat to native wildlife and plants.

Goats compete for grazing with tortoises and iguanas, and on some islands have devastated the natural vegetation. Feral dogs and cats prey on iguanas and sea bird chicks. Rats and pigs eat the eggs of tortoises, turtles and sea birds. Some introduced plants are seriously threatening the survival of native species.

The Ecuadorian project is multi-faceted. In its own words, it “aims at fully empowering Ecuadorian institutions charged with conserving the Islands to proactively, and adaptively, manage these threats, and guard against future “bio-invasion’ by taking a precautionary approach to ecosystem management.”

That means building local expertise and capability.

Which is where the management experts from New Zealand and Mauritius step in - providing advice for pilot projects. Galapagos National Park personnel have also been to New Zealand to investigate goat-hunting technology.

Another example of New Zealand’s commitment to global conservation took place on the Seychelles two years ago, when New Zealand expertise spearheaded an operation to eradicate two species of introduced rats, mice and feral cats from three islands in the Seychelles archipelago.

This operation is a great example of how sharing resources gets a job done. While it is still too soon to confirm the outcome, the prognosis is looking hopeful.

The initiative we are launching here this evening is all about supporting this kind of work, leading to significant conservation benefits worldwide


The Cooperative Islands Initiative dealing with Invasive Alien Species has three aims.

They are:

- To build capacity for managing invasive alien species on islands;

- To facilitate cooperation and share expertise; and

- To help countries identify problems, look for solutions and act on them, to improve the conservation of biological diversity on islands.

It s scope includes all islands with significant biodiversity - both small island states, and offshore and oceanic islands belonging to continental states.

It encompasses developing and developed countries.

The aims are solid, and as with all initiatives, the important question is how they will be achieved.

The lead role will be played by the Invasive Species Specialist Group, set up by the World Conservation Union, and based in Auckland, New Zealand.

The group will not be building up major infrastructure or institutions - instead the group will operate as a broker - of information, of expertise, of techniques and funding.

Its initial work will follow five paths, most related to gathering and pooling existing information to make the group easy to find and use.

First, the group plans to build a comprehensive information base of expertise related to biodiversity threats to islands. This will be a one-stop shop of “who is doing what, where,” as well as the lessons learned from these programmes.

The register will include practitioners, field project workers, researchers, experts in taxonomy, logistics and methodology, and regional, national and international authorities.

Second, the group will foster networks. Some networks will encourage cooperation at all levels - from in-the-field practitioners to government agencies, from policy makers to non-government organisations.

Other networks will focus on peer review to help design and put in place invasive alien species management programmes.

Learning from others, building on their experiences, is an excellent way to identify and avoid potential problems and increase the chances of success.

The result is a virtuous circle. As a programme’s chances of success increase, so will its credibility and its likelihood of attracting funding.

Third, the group will expand the Global Invasive Species database to create an easily accessible and integrated record.

At first this work will concentrate on plants and animals known to be invasive in the small island states of the Pacific. The work will expand to other island regions as resources allow. Currently, the data is widely dispersed, and it is not always published or on-line.

The group will also develop a database specifically related to the management of invasive species that threaten island biodiversity. Once information on the species and how to prevent, control and eradicate them is included, it will be integrated with the Global Invasive Species database.

Fourth, techniques and capacity will be improved by increased sharing of information and lessons learnt from previous operations. This will take two forms - a management database; and a process to facilitate international cooperation.

Fifth, and finally, the group will work to establish an independently managed pool of resources to help deal with emergency response actions for new incursions of alien species. These resources will include funding and rapid access to expertise, equipment, herbicides and pesticides.

While access to emergency funding is an oft-raised and crucial part of dealing with new incursions, this is a complex issue and needs to be addressed over a reasonable period of time.

I would like to conclude by thanking all countries that have supported the initiative thus far and encourage others to add their support to this important initiative.

Your contributions can be financial, skills and expertise, and/or logistics.

I also encourage countries to take advantage of the opportunity to be involved by identifying suitable projects.

And now it is time to hand you over to the next speaker who will tell you more about what is already being done.


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