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New Zealanders Only People Who Can Save Endangered Birds

New Zealanders Only People Who Can Save Highly Endangered Birds

The devastating decline of the unique birds that breed in the South Island’s braided rivers can only be prevented by human intervention, a Braided River Aid (BRaid) conference was told in Lincoln today.

Christchurch-based independent ecologist John Dowding told the gathering that braided shingle rivers were rare on a global basis with New Zealand an international hotspot for this type of environment and Canterbury’s rivers representing the bulk of this type of ecosystem.

He said the fate of specialist braided river birds such as the black-billed gull, black stilt, wrybill and black-fronted tern was “desperate” with the decline in some of these species precipitous. “For example, the black-billed gull is now regarded as the most endangered gull in the world and is declining at rates equivalent to about 75% over 30 years” he said. “That’s about 11 less black-billed gulls every day over the last six years alone.”

“What’s important to note,” Dowding said, “is that these birds are endemic. That means they are only found in New Zealand. We are the only people in the world who are directly responsible for preventing their extinction. Many of the threats these unique birds are facing are human induced and it is humans who must find the answers.”

“Introduced mammalian pests (feral cats, stoats, hedgehogs, possums, ferrets, rats) are a major threat,” Dowding said, “but so is introduced weed invasion, human disturbance and water extraction.”

Dowding said that water use in particular will become a focus of conflict between the needs of the braided river species and the needs of human development. He said the clamour for improved access to water was loud, well funded and effective; the cause to limit water extraction to protect the braided river environment and its birds, was not.

“Education and raising public awareness must be a priority,” he said, “and we have to get a lot better at it. The powerful decision makers need to hear that people are concerned about their unique flora and fauna and do not want their rivers, and the animals that depend on them, to die.”

Dowding said education, too, was crucial. “My own son has just come out of school having studied biology and not once was he taught words like ‘threatened’ or ‘biodiversity.’ We have to invest in improving our young people’s knowledge and appreciation of the rare and precious natural resource we have on our own doorstep here in Canterbury.”

The BRaid workshop at Lincoln attracted some 100 environmental professionals, researchers and members of community river-care groups who discussed how best to arrest the decline in the braided river populations, not just birds but also rare plants, reptiles and insects.

The challenge was especially relevant to Cantabrians who lived in the heartland of New Zealand’s braided river systems, said BRaid chairman Nick Ledgard.

“Very few native ecosystems are still intact on the Canterbury plains” Ledgard said. “Braided rivers are one of them, and the only living remnant of these unique environments that most people will ever see is the birds. It is amazing how they have managed to survive over the last few decades in the face of reduced river flows and invasion by introduced weeds, predators and people. However their future is very uncertain.” BRaid was formed in 2007 to bring together those concerned about the future of the birds.

“The workshop unearthed the latest information on the status of the birds” says BRaid manager and workshop organiser, Jane Demeter. “We had thirteen speakers addressing a wide range of subjects to help us influence, improve and implement improved braised river management strategies.”

While the black-billed gull is the most endangered of the braided specialists, Demeter said the icon was the wrybill, a bird Cantabrians should be celebrating a unique relationship with. “It always surprises me how so few people know of this unique species. It is the only bird in the world with a bill that bends sideways, and it breeds almost exclusively in Canterbury’s braided rivers.”


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