By Brooke Cox and Leon Berard
If someone asked you to name UNESCO World Heritage Sites, how many could you get through? Everest, Grand Canyon and Galapagos might come to mind, but chances are the New Zealand Subantarctic islands wouldn’t be on that list. Tucked away to the south-east of NZ they are remote, wild, and teeming with wildlife.
This summer, we – two conservationists, who also happen to work for DOC – travelled on scholarships to the Snares/Tini Heke, Auckland Islands/Maungahuka/Motu Maha, Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku, Antipodes Island and the Bounty Islands. These scholarships are offered by NZ-owned Heritage Expeditions each year, enabling young kiwis to join one of their voyages, get inspired by conservation stories from the Subantarctics, and return with an increased passion to protect and restore the unique environment.
New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world, and many of these birds breed on the Subantarctics. The variation and scale of birdlife was something we’d never seen before, and it continually surprised all the passengers throughout the voyage.
Some of the highlights were southern royal albatross, the main breeding population of hoiho, Eastern rockhopper penguins, Salvin’s mollymawk, and Campbell black-browed albatross on Campbell Island. There are also some unique landlubbers there, like the black snares tomtit, subantarctic variations of dotterels and fernbirds, and the Antipodes kakariki.
These birds’ habitats are befitting of the remote location: windswept tussock and twisted rata forest, sheer volcanic cliffs battered by massive waves, and fields of brightly flowering megaherbs.
We learnt of successes and failures, both in terms of human settlement and conservation.
Despite numerous attempts at settlement by sealers and farmers, the islands’ remoteness is their greatest defence – but we are still managing to affect them through a deadly combination of climate change, commercial fishing and introduced predators.
The creatures who inhabit this region are vulnerable to change, as well as resilient and able to bounce back – if given the chance.
Climate change increases the frequency of severe weather events which threaten bird colonies. A warming environment means albatross breeding sites are reduced as Dracophyllum scrub spreads to higher altitudes. Temperature-driven changes in prey distribution make it harder for seabirds to feed and increases interactions with commercial fishing, while fishing gear inadvertently kills threatened seabirds and sea lions.
We also learnt about conservation success stories in the region. While introduced mammals continue to have a visible impact on Auckland Island, nearby pest-free Enderby Island gives a glimpse of the ecosystem’s resilience. We watched a group of young Southern royal albatross courting near the boardwalk. They have returned and their population is climbing, after humans extirpated them from the island in the 1800s. On Campbell Island, flightless teal were spotted foraging amongst the seaweed; these birds were successfully reintroduced to the island once it was cleared of rats in 2001.
New Zealanders have shown we’re proficient at island pest eradication on an increasing scale, but how to combat climate change is something we are still learning.
DOC has a climate change adaptation action plan to guide research, monitoring and action over the next five years. You can find the plan and other DOC climate change work online. The Ministry for the Environment has resources to help individuals think about how they can make a difference. Individuals and organisations now have an opportunity to collectively reduce our impacts and let the environment recover – if we give it a chance before it’s too late.