Why the survival of NZ’s wildlife is in our hands

Department of Conservation —  22/02/2018

The idea that New Zealand’s threatened species can somehow safely ‘co-exist’ with the onslaught of introduced predators is irresponsible and untrue, writes Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki.

New Zealand is facing a biodiversity crisis. With more than 4000 species in trouble, some scientists have given us the dubious honour of the country with the highest proportion of threatened species in the world.

The survival of many of our native species, such as this kōkako chick, rests in our hands.

The survival of many of our native species, such as this kōkako chick, rests in our hands

Some recent commentary has suggested that native species and introduced predators might peacefully co-exist and that therefore we should focus on the ecosystems of the future, rather than the ecosystems of the past. If that is what New Zealand decided to do, we would be making a very stark choice.

New Zealand’s endemic fauna has evolved in a predatory mammal-free bubble for millions of years. In general, our native wildlife’s predators came from the air. That is why our birds (and some of our invertebrates) grew large and fat, nested on the ground and some even eventually lost the power of flight. All they had to do to avoid a predator was stay very still and blend in with their surroundings. Once people arrived here, we turned on a conveyor belt of introduced mammals starting with kiore and kuri, then stoats, ferrets, weasels, possums, rats, cats, mice, hedgehogs and more.  Our naïve native species were simply sitting ducks for these new predators.

The idea that we have a reasonable choice, that our threatened species can somehow safely ‘co-exist’ with the onslaught of introduced predators is irresponsible and untrue. Tell that to the tuatara, which disappeared from mainland New Zealand around the time that rats arrived here (luckily for them, some survived on offshore islands). Tell that to the greater short-tailed bat, which was wiped off the planet when a rat plague occurred at Big South Cape Island near Stewart Island in the 1960s. Tell that to the kea, which suffers losses of up to 60% of all nests in areas with no pest control, and this can rise to 95% nest loss following a beech mast. Tell that to the kiwi, which are intensively managed through Operation Nest Egg (egg removal and raising chicks in safe environments until they’re deemed big enough to defend themselves).

Without intensive management, 19 out of 20 North Island brown kiwi chicks do not survive until one year of age and for the diminutive little-spotted kiwi, even the adults are too small to withstand a stoat attack. At a loss of 2% per year for unmanaged kiwi, our national bird could go extinct in the wild in just two generations without serious interventions and removal of predators wherever possible.

Biodiversity beyond the fence

Predator-free sanctuaries are essential for the ongoing survival of many of our native species, including invertebrates and reptiles and amphibians. What’s exciting is what comes after that. We can do so much more for our wildlife than to relegate species to living behind fences or in designated areas somewhere away from us out in the bush. We need only look to our neighbours in Australia, who have learned to live with flocks of cockatoos smattered across their towns and cities, and fruit bats migrating across the skies each night. Why shouldn’t New Zealanders aspire to having flourishing native wildlife in our backyards, farms and cities?

Unlike other big environmental issues, the recipe for enhancing the survival of much of New Zealand’s native wildlife is relatively simple – remove the pests and protect habitat. That’s why our predator-free islands once again boast a deafening dawn chorus.  The opportunity to protect and restore some habitat, learn about local ecology and work with our local communities to improve things for nature give us hope and pride.

Old Blue, the Chatham Islands black robin that saved her species.

Old Blue, the Chatham Islands black robin that saved her species

The idea of communities being engaged in protecting their native wildlife is one that has caught on all over the country. Someone suggested to me last week that there may be as many as 1000 trapping groups in the Auckland region alone. Wellington has created their own umbrella group to wrap around the hundreds of trapping groups there. The Department of Conservation has nominated a team of rangers around the country to support these groups with advice and information. Why wouldn’t we encourage and support this – with the best advice we can muster of course, and always with welfare issues in mind?

Our nature is who we are

New Zealanders are quite simply defined by our natural environment, in particular our native flora and fauna. The late conservationist Don Merton, internationally renowned for his and his team’s efforts to save the black robin and the kākāpō from imminent extinction, once put it like this:

“They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kākāpō. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out.”

It is up to us to make sure that happens, and from the view of the Department of Conservation, iwi, businesses, communities and countless individuals engaged in protecting our precious native taonga on a daily basis, it is a responsibility that we hold dear to our hearts.

This article was originally published on The Spinoff.

6 responses to Why the survival of NZ’s wildlife is in our hands


    It seems the problem is always funding, yet our country will be the lesser for loosing our wildlife, Narena, some birds adapt it’s true, some can not.The idiotic notion of co-existance is not worth commenting on . However I suggested that the continuing use of 1080 is not achieving the goal was meet with scorn. But it is reasonable to assume that new science is needed to halt the demise of our national treasures.
    I agree Don Merton was a very fine man, I worked with him many years ago in Fiordland on the hunt for Kakapo…Many memories…Since a boy sixty odd years ago Ive watched our birds decline steadily and that will continue 1080 or no 1080. We need to move on to better things….


      The notion of a predator free NZ is a mistaken one I think. We should be aiming for a number of mainland predator free islands throughout the country like Zealandia which become refuges for our endemic species but may still spill out into the “real” world and learn perhaps to evolve and adapt. Research is needed in this area. How is it that eastern rosellas thrive in NZ when our kakarikis struggle to survive? Both are cavity nesting birds.

      Unmonitored groups of people running about killing predators bothers me as who is to know quite what they are killing. Everyone has their pet hates and I know too many people who cannot tell a tui from a blackbird.

    Carol Davies 24/02/2018 at 12:25 pm

    Interesting article. When I contacted several people in DoC, Northland Conservation Board(they supported it and have the letter), WWF-NZ and many MPs etc etc about the Cat Sanctuary in the Far North, the silence was deafening. Cats are a predator surely. Cat Sanctuary is not on DoC land so not really interested. Eugenie Sage MP, the now Coservation Minister was the only person who contacted me phoned me and offered help but no help came! Maybe it was because after she had the meeting with the local “greenies” she realised they had offered money to set the Sanctuary up right next to a NZ dotterel flocking site. If every house in the Far North was allowed 20 cats like this one we would have a frightening scenario. Because I was the only voice that spoke out about it nobody helped or even cared. The Sanctuary setup is illegal according to the Ombudsman. The dotterels from Project Island Song islands fly to flock on Paihia’s beaches and they are then predated. PIS are aware this happens!!!. Cats are found on predator free islands in the BOI and the local DoC office give the cats back to the owners with a belly full of saddlebacks. They then translocate more to cover it up. They tell the volunteers they shot it! We have the FNDC Mayor ripping up a Dog Bylaw after angry Dog owners contacted him. The Bylaw was trying to protect the Biodiversity for once. He told the staff to rewrite again. They did but more or less on the back of a fag packet to satisify the dog owners.. That how much the Council and the locals value the biodiversity here. Wetlands are being cleared, used as a dumping ground for their green waste and others being turned into car parks. I am well aware about the demise of the beautiful biodiversity and it is so disheartening by the level of ignorance about out there even in DoC..

    Narena Olliver 23/02/2018 at 12:50 pm

    I think that we are not arguing “that our threatened species can somehow safely ‘co-exist’ with the onslaught of introduced predators”, but that more thought needs to go into this. The Australians are doing experiments to see how one might encourage species to become less predator naive. I know of no such research here. If one totally protects our threatened species, are you sure that will ensure their survival? What happens if in the future funding is stopped? The tui has learned to adapt. It seldom is seen on the ground and nests very high in trees. Korimako also made a comeback, when it was thought by Buller to be on the way to extinction.

    Pete Ravenscroft 22/02/2018 at 9:10 pm

    Hi Nic, I applaud DOC efforts regarding the continued management of N.Z iconic species but I note the continued lack of resources given to our less attractive species. Many of our native fish species, which fit into this category are trending towards extinction mainly caused by extremely efficient introduced predator. The protection of native fish from these predators is straightforward and relatively cheap – when can we expect to see an increased effort in the protection of these species?

    Vicki Lowrie 22/02/2018 at 1:03 pm

    Great article, Nic. I particularly liked the excerpt from Don Merton, a wonderful conservationist who, I feel, has not been given enough kudos lately for his years of dedication to NZ’s.wildlife.