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Bailing Hard To Save Moa’s Ark

Bailing Hard To Save Moa’s Ark

By Bernie Napp, DOC journalist

The Conservation Department faces a huge task in protecting native species. The kiwi is here to stay.

When Morning Report hosts Sean Plunket and Geoff Robinson talked of dropping the bird call, the public squawked. National Radio fielded 1800 emails in one morning with the message that New Zealanders value our natural heritage. So do others, and they are willing to pay for it.

Our beautiful scenery, as well as our dolphins and whales, kiwi and tuatara are what draw overseas visitors to New Zealand. They pump more than $10 billion into our country each year.

It’s reasonable to ask, then, and appropriate on International Biodiversity Day (22 May), if the Conservation Department is properly protecting New Zealand’s native species.

DOC can point to the good news - for instance, that all 11 species and genetically-distinct varieties of kiwi are safe from extinction. That’s easily said but the knowledge and skills to achieve this have been hard won.

There’s more to protecting kiwi than throwing traps on a hillside and hoping for the best. The science on stoat biology, trapping methods and measuring their effects on stoats and kiwi has taken 15 years to collect, in the laboratory, and out in the mud and the rain.

Success in the future depends on DOC spending on targeted kiwi areas, Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Trust funding, and the New Zealanders leading 50 private kiwi conservation projects nationwide.

Even with this activity, overall numbers of kiwi will continue to decline, more quickly in some areas than others, from around 75,000 to 40,000 over the next decade. DOC cannot save every individual kiwi everywhere - a reality of much conservation work.

Where it can do the work, DOC is doing well - on offshore islands and intensively-managed mainland sites, and individually-managed species such as kakapo, takahe, Chatham Island black robin, black stilt, and some rare plants.

New Zealand must accept, however, that there is a bigger picture. DOC’s annual report to Parliament last year said that the department had improved, during 2003-2004, the situation of 147 (or 17 per cent) of our 847 most threatened species. At the other end of the conservation scale are the 77 per cent lying outside targeted work programmes. Almost all species in this category are mosses, ferns, fungi, insects, marine and freshwater life, and thinly-spread lizards, kea, seabirds and whales, all of which are difficult to find, let alone study or protect.

In 2000 the Government instructed DOC to “halt the decline in New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity”, described in a 1997 report as New Zealand’s “most pervasive environmental problem”. It still is, but the difference today is that the problem is better understood – being much bigger and more complex than previously thought.

For example, it has taken the last six years to understand the interactions between stoats, rats, beech forest fruiting cycles and native birds. The result is Operation Ark, a method of dealing with stoat and rat plagues in beech forests to protect mohua (yellowhead), whio (blue duck), orange-fronted kakariki and bats in the South Island. Other native species are expected to benefit as well.

Recognising the scale of the threats, DOC is moving increasingly towards protecting many species at the same time at priority sites. The results we are getting from around the country are giving us good cause for hope.

At Boundary Stream reserve in inland Hawke’s Bay, control of possums, rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, feral cats and goats has seen native birdlife and plants bounce back over the last nine years. On the strength of this work, by DOC and volunteers, kiwi, kokako and saddleback have been reintroduced.

Our offshore island network is being extended with pest eradication planned and/or recently completed at Little Barrier, Campbell, Resolution, Secretary and Raoul Islands. Islands remain important sites for tuatara, kakapo, little spotted kiwi and other birds, lizards, frogs and giant weta.

There is an increasing realisation that DOC cannot be the only protector of native flora and fauna. “Biodiversity is everybody’s business,” as Prime Minister Helen Clark said in 2000 in the foreword to the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy.

Many New Zealanders are getting involved in conservation, even starting and running their own projects, often with DOC support. The Government’s biodiversity advice and condition funds supported 287 projects in the last year, with $5.2 million in grants.

More areas are coming into conservation management via QEII covenants on private land, Nga Whenua Rahui kawenata on Maori-owned land, Nature Heritage Fund purchases, transfer of Crown lands through tenure review of high country pastoral leases, and extensions to the marine protected area network.

Reducing human impacts on native species is part of nature protection. Retiring high-altitude tussocklands from grazing will benefit many plants, insects, lizards and birds, and better fishing methods will increasingly reduce bycatch of dolphins, seals, sea lions and seabirds.

The challenge ahead for New Zealand is to apply the skills being learned and protect our native species, which everyone values, at more than a few dots on the map.

Who’s who on “Moa’s Ark”

English botanist David Bellamy coined the term “Moa’s Ark” for New Zealand and its unusual flora and fauna, inspired by the tallest bird that ever lived.

One of a kind: kiwi, kakapo (only flightless parrot and world’s heaviest parrot), takahe (world’s largest rail), kea (only alpine parrot), stitchbird, kokako, saddleback, short-tailed bat (only bat that eats both fruit and insects).

Living fossils: tuatara, native frogs, weta, kauri snails and flax snails.

Gondwanaland relics: podocarp forests (totara, rimu, matai, miro, kahikatea and the like), southern beech forests, tree-ferns, native galaxiid fishes (including whitebait)

Marine mammal Capital: At 51 species of whale, dolphin and seal recorded in our waters, New Zealand has more marine mammals than any other country.

Sea bird Capital: Of the 18 penguin species worldwide, 13 visit or breed in New Zealand, and 14 of the world’s 24 species of albatross breed in New Zealand, more than any other country.

Gone forever: Moa (up to 14 species); an eagle, rail and owlet-nightjar (each one the world’s largest of their type); the adzebill, laughing owl, the thrush-like piopio, three wrens, the world’s largest gecko, and the huia, the only bird in the world in which males and females had differently-shaped beaks and feeding habits.

ENDS

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