Understanding the conservation status of our species

Department of Conservation —  09/08/2021

Understanding the conservation status of our native plants and animals can be a bit confusing.

We’re all used to seeing terms like ‘Endangered’ and ‘Threatened’ used on conservation publications, but why have two different terms that mean the same thing, right!?

Where it gets even more confusing is around more terms like ‘Nationally Critical’ ‘Nationally Vulnerable’ and ‘At Risk’ – What do all of these terms mean and how do they help us comprehend the threat levels of our native species?

Find out all you need to know about the conservation status of our native flora and fauna here.

Threatened- Nationally Critical Chatham Island black robin.
📷: Leon Berard

What’s the difference between ‘Endangered’ and ‘Threatened’?

Right off the bat let’s discuss ‘Endangered’ and ‘Threatened’ and get this cleared up before we move on!

To many people around the world ‘Endangered’ species and ‘Threatened’ species are just two different ways of describing the same thing – an at-risk plant or animal. However, in New Zealand in the New Zealand Threat Classification System, the system used to give a conservation status to all of our native species, these terms mean two different things.

A ‘Threatened’ species is an umbrella term covering a range of risk categories and endangered or ‘Nationally Endangered’ species is one specific risk category.


Under the ‘Threatened‘ umbrella we have the risk category of ‘Nationally Critical’ which classifies the most severely threatened species that are in an immediate high risk of extinction. Then we have ‘Nationally Endangered‘ species which is similar to ‘Nationally Critical’ in that species face a high risk of extinction, but this is in the short term, rather than immediately. Lastly, ‘Nationally Vulnerable‘ species face a risk of extinction but it’s in the medium term.

Threatened – Nationally Vulnerable Chatham Island forget-me-not.
📷: Wei-hang Chua

At Risk

At Risk’ species aren’t considered threatened, but they could quickly become so if their decline continues, or if new threats arise. ‘At Risk- Declining’ means the population numbers are dropping but the species is still common. ‘At Risk- Recovering’ classifies species that have small populations but they are increasing, after declining. ‘At Risk- Relict’ species have a small population that has stabilised after declining and ‘At Risk- Naturally Uncommon’ categorises the species that have a naturally small population and therefore susceptible to harmful influences.

At Risk- Declining Tautuku gecko, found Catlins forest.
📷: C, Knox

Here’s a handy flow chart explaining the different risk categories and how they fit into different classifications.

For your interest, here’s a list of New Zealand’s threatened birds

How are species assessed?

Now that we know the different classifications and risk categories, let’s find out how species are assessed.

A panel of experts from the New Zealand scientific community look at factors of a species such as population size, how much the population is estimated to rise and fall over the next three generations, or 10 years (whichever comes first), if the population is stable and if the population state is a result of human-induced effects. The experts use information from databases, scientific publications and information from the public as well as their own knowledge.

The results of the expert panels’ assessments are stored in the NZTCS (New Zealand Threat Classification System) database and once an assessment is published, it becomes available in PDF format on the DOC website

Threatened – Nationally Critical Short-tailed bat.
📷: Colin O’Donell

Are all ‘Threatened species protected?

The simple answer is no.

In many countries, species listed as threatened automatically receive legislative protection from hunting, habitat destruction and other threats. However, in New Zealand, there’s no direct link between conservation status and legal protection.

Legal protection of species

The legal protection of species is covered in the following acts:

  • The Conservation Act 1987 protects plants and animals on public conservation land.
  • The Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978 protects all marine mammals.
  • The Wildlife Act 1953 protects all terrestrial vertebrate animals except those specifically excluded or limited in one of the schedules to the act. It also protects some invertebrate and marine fish species declared to be animals for the purposes of the act.
  • The Native Plants Protection Act 1934 allows for national or regional protection of native plant species by a Warrant issued by the Governor-General. It does not infer any general protection of native plants outside national parks and reserves.

What’s not protected?

Plants, invertebrates and fish are generally not protected except where they occur in national parks or reserves. Exceptions are the few fish and invertebrates deemed to be animals under the Wildlife Act.

We hope this has helped you understand the different conservation status classifications for our native animals and plants, and how species are assessed. Next time you see a conservation publication that has a conservation status classification of a species you’ll know exactly what it means and will be able to understand the threat level of that native species.

You can find out more about how we manage the threats to these species and the specific species programmes we have.

6 responses to Understanding the conservation status of our species


    I don’t understand why would people continue to trap, hunt and kill these magnificent birds. We must understand that these species are beauty just for the eyes alone.



    Does dropping 1080 hinder these species chances of survival??


      Procrastination to fund pest control and reliance on operation “trigger point monitoring” combined with management tools determined without open public tendering (economic’s, effectiveness and accountability) is what hinders these species chances to survive, 1080 is just the “tool choice” to deliver capture due a situation of urgency has been arrived at!. If permanent control was regularly provided the species could then look after themselves as has been done for millions of years previously. Habitat loss is a real concern though……! To much money wasted in talking and none spent on those doing……..for too long!


      1080 is proven to work safely in reducing predators, and we need to use it to save our native wildlife and forests.

      Monitoring shows aerial 1080 is an effective tool to protect our native species and restore our forests. Find out more: http://www.doc.govt.nz/1080

    Bruce Jefferies 10/08/2021 at 3:00 pm

    Never was able to understand why NZ / DoC does not use the international IUCN Red List?

    Established in 1964, The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species.

    The IUCN Red List is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity. Far more than a list of species and their status, it is a powerful tool to inform and catalyze action for biodiversity conservation and policy change, critical to protecting the natural resources we need to survive. It provides information about range, population size, habitat and ecology, use and/or trade, threats, and conservation actions that will help inform necessary conservation decisions.


    Excellent, thanks.