New Zealand is known globally for our efforts in conservation. We’re nowhere near done, but we’ve made considerable progress to protect our native species and bring them back from the brink of extinction over the past 50 years.
As New Zealanders, we can be proud of our commitment to preserving our natural and historic heritage, supported by environmental legislation, and community and iwi input. There’s no place on earth quite like it.
This week is the 50th anniversary of Conservation Week. This is our history.
A need for consolidated environmental management
Today, the Department of Conservation is the leading central government agency responsible for New Zealand’s environment. The legislative mandate is the Conservation Act 1987. We’re in a unique position to work to protect, promote, advocate and advise on conservation management.
To conserve New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage for all to enjoy now and in the future.
He ata whakaute, manaaki, me te tiaki ia Papatuanuku ki Aotearoa kia u tonu ai tona whakawaiutanga hei oranga ngakau mo te tini te mano inaianei, ake tonu ake.
Conservation Week, started by SCOUTS New Zealand, was run by the Nature Conservation Council for many years. Prior to DOC forming, environmental management was shared between Lands and Survey, NZ Forest Service, and the Wildlife Service. However, after years of divided and conflicted conservation responsibilities, a single agency, mandated with integrated management responsibility for habitats and species, protection and recreation, was envisaged.
And so, DOC was born.
Unique history of conservation in New Zealand
Conservation: written in the law
The Historic Places Amendment Act 1975 provided the first legal provisions to regulate any disturbance to an archaeological site older than 100 years old. An important win for Māori, with an increasing trade in artefacts that led to over-digging and pillaging, both locally and overseas.
The Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 is the legislation we administer to conserve, protect and manage marine mammals; it includes permits, the establishment of marine mammal sanctuaries, and the implementation of population management plans.
The purpose of the Conservation Act 1987 was to bring together one department to focus formally on the need for conservation management and protection of our natural and historic heritage.
Community protests spark change
Beech forests are the largest remaining indigenous forest type in New Zealand — but they weren’t always protected. Community activists campaigned for the end of logging pristine native forests in the early 1970s. By 1975, not only had the most destructive beech forest plans dissolved, the public consciousness was raised.
And with that, came the Manapouri decision. After campaigning since 1959, and Forest and Bird launching a record 264,907 signature petition (pre-internet!), the public stopped the lake from being raised at Lake Manapouri and Te Anau in 1972.
In that same year, a new portfolio was developed within government — the Minister for the Environment, Duncan McIntyre, a senior Cabinet Minister, was appointed the position and attended the Stockholm Conference on the Environment (1972): the world’s first forum to address global environment concerns.
New Zealand was amongst 85% of the UN nations attending, working to set an agenda for international cooperation on environmental degradation.
World Heritage recognition
In 1990, a huge win for global recognition: UNESCO recognised Te Wāhipounamu–South West New Zealand as a World Heritage site.
Despite only a few years as a central government agency for conservation, DOC paved the way for this international initiative after taking ownership of 300,000 hectares of South Westland’s indigenous forests, south of the Cook River. This ended decades of forest conservation controversy.
An island sanctuary for native birds. From the 1920s, the neglect of Kapiti Island became inspiration for the formation of the Forest & Bird Society. From the 1980s, the island was the leader in the first large-scale ground possum control and then aerial rat eradication in 1996.
Kapiti pioneered the necessary pest control techniques we now have today. It opened up possibility for native bird protection, and became a key site for translocation of endangered species and a must-see location for eco-visitors.
In the early 1990s, it became clear that without predator control — our native species would be unable to thrive, continue to decline, and worst case, go extinct. Wellington Regional Council recognised this, and decided to turn the 130-year-old water catchment in Karori into a reserve, including an 8.6km predator-free fence.
It was a world-first, to exclude predators from a 225 hectare zone. At the end of the 90s, the Karori Sanctuary was opened. Before long, native birds were thriving in an area previously outrun with possums. Tīeke, hihi, kākā and korimako had a second chance at life.
Since then, the name changed to Zealandia — recently named one of TIME’s Top 100 Greatest Places 2019.
In 2000, the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy was published. This plan of action outlines protective measures for coastal, marine and terrestrial restoration. We’re currently calling for public consultation on the next strategy — driven by the community — on areas such as public land, forest regeneration, wetland renewal and protection of endangered birds, lizards, snails and fish.
Until the end of Conservation Week 2019, the 22nd September, you can have your say on the next Biodiversity Strategy (Te Koiroa o te Koiora) to help protect and restore nature over the next 50 years. Fill out the online survey here or join the conversation via HiveMind.
Protecting our native species
A core part of our conservation wins over the last 50 years have been centred around New Zealand’s efforts to conserve and regenerate the populations of our unique native wildlife. Our work not only focuses on the restoration of species, places and heritage, but also aims to provide opportunities for everyone to engage with our incredible taonga.
The kākāpō population officially reached 200 this year! From just 51 of these precious taonga in the 1990s, this fantastic milestone had meant decades of work behind-the-scenes to achieve. There are still chicks yet to come of age, but it’s news definitely worth celebrating. The Kākāpō Recovery Programme works in partnership with Ngāi Tahu with support from National Partner Meridian Energy.
Our resident DOC celebrity, Sirocco, is the official Spokesbird for New Zealand. He’s known and adored globally (after that famous, or rather infamous, incident on a Stephen Fry BBC series); he’s amassed a loyal fanbase on Facebook, with over 233,000 people taking interest in our native parrot as he goes about his day in the name of conservation.
Our dedicated Takahē Team and iwi work with a network of people around New Zealand, to ensure the takahē is never considered extinct again. Protecting takahē is certainly a team effort, which has included puppets, bantam hens, helicopter pilots, ecologists, biologists, deer cullers, stoat trappers, rangers and volunteers.
The vision for the programme over the next 5 years is focused on growing the population rate by 5% each year. Takahē are a taonga and a conservation icon, and we have our DOC Takahē rangers to thank for their progress. Learn more about what they do here.
Our work with Māui dolphin
We’re lucky in New Zealand to have amazing marine mammals in our waters; however, with only 100 Māui dolphins left in the wild, we are using a range of research methods and techniques to seek answers into the declining population.
The Threat Management Plan for Hector’s and Māui Dolphins is currently under review this year. So far, big steps forward have been taken to protect our native dolphins. Fisheries restrictions, including set net and trawl bans, have been implemented in parts of the North and South Island, and six marine mammal sanctuaries have been established to further ensure their conservation.
Save Our Iconic Kiwi
Our kiwi populations are decreasing by 5% each year due to predation upon chicks by introduced pests. Although this may not seem like a conservation win, we’re working hard to focus on the kiwi species suffering the greatest rate of decline in the remote backcountry of the South Island: Fiordland tokoeka, Rakiura (Stewart Island) tokoeka and great spotted kiwi/roroa. Learn more about how and why we need to protect kiwi here.
Threatened Species Ambassador
If you follow along with our Critter of the Week on RNZ and Facebook, you’ll know Nicola Toki well. She’s DOC’s Threatened Species Ambassador and does amazing work to get the word out there about interesting species that are native to New Zealand and how we are working to protect them. Learn more about Nic here.
They’re not just adorable, they’re highly-trained to detect our native species and unwanted pests. Dog handler teams have been used successfully in conservation for the past 40 years. Today, conservation dogs are used to monitor kiwi and pāteke in Northland, protect the Hauraki Gulf islands from introduced pests, and detect kiwi, blue duck/whio and kea on the West Coast.
In 2016, Kiwibank joined forces with DOC to support the Conservation Dogs Programme. Their ongoing investment and support has led to greater awareness and protection of our pest-free islands and predator-free sanctuaries.
We’re celebrating 50 years of Conservation Week this week. You can participate with activities at home or join in on a local event to help protect the unique biodiversity of Aotearoa.
Jim Lynch (then a volunteer in Forest and Bird) founded Zealandia, not the Regional Council. His book on this endeavour will be launched on Tuesday.