Nature is Metal – On Letting Things Take Their Course

Department of Conservation —  09/05/2022

By Brian McDonald.

When I joined DOC all of eight months ago, I was young and naïve. Well, OK, I was the wrong side of thirty and extremely jaded, but bear with me.

I thought this was going to be all sunshine and rainbows, saving species, and protecting penguins. It wasn’t long, however, before I came to learn the important distinction between protecting nature as a whole and caring for individual creatures and plants.

I promise I won’t quote Spock’s famous Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” line in this blog. I will, however, quote many other Star Trek lines.

The colours of Te Taiao.
📷: Steve Pilkington CC-BY-4.0

I’m a Ranger, not a Mechanic

DOC’s role is to conserve and protect nature on a macro scale; we’re concerned with ecosystems on a grand scale, and animals and plants in terms of species, not individuals. Sometimes, this means making some hard choices.

The best example is a seal getting caught by orca. Both are protected species, and so we are concerned with ensuring their survival. However, seals are also a primary food source for orca, and so we face one of the most challenging moral dilemmas in conservation. DOC’s role, and that of a genuine conservationist, is to allow Free Willy to chow down on Salty the Seal, because that’s how they interact in nature without human intervention. Upsetting, but natural.

Nature is, for lack of a better descriptor, viciously hardcore. It doesn’t care about aesthetics or feelings, or how absurdly adorable the various links in the food chain are. It cares about nothing beyond survival, and survival is often gritty and harsh. Effectively, in the case that a sea panda wants to eat an aqua pupper, we’re going to let it.

That paragraph got pretty dark, so here’s a cute seal pic before the next bit.

Sleepy seal.
📷: DOC.

Resistance is Futile

When we interfere in natural processes like hunting or breeding, that causes ripples throughout the ecosystem. We could save the cute penguin from the equally cute apex predator, but then that predator is without a meal. If it goes hungry, maybe its pups do too. Maybe the pups die, and that seal never breeds again. That’s an entire line of protected species snuffed out, for the sake of our own feelings.

It’s like The Butterfly Effect, except with cetaceans and pinnipeds instead of Ashton Kutcher.

Sharks, seals, sea lions and occasionally orca prey on penguins while at sea. Upsetting, but these sea lion pups need food for survival.
📷: Jack Mace.

Even dying animals are often left for nature to take its course, although obviously not all the time. Whales especially, if beached and unable to be re-floated, can take a very long time to finally die. Moreover, their deaths are protracted and cruel, basically suffocating under their own weight for days.

Ending the suffering is obviously the kindest thing to do and so, in these cases, we step up. But it doesn’t make it easy; believe me, the hardest part of a ranger’s job is euthanising animals, and the kind of people who would enjoy euthanising a dying animal are not the kind of people we have in those jobs. It’s a miserable, traumatic experience for everyone involved, from our own DOC staff to local iwi, and even the occasional passer-by who happens to be around at the wrong moment. But minimising suffering is the most ethical thing to do, and our own discomfort is a small price to pay.

New Zealand is a hotspot for marine mammal strandings. Since 1840, more than 5,000 strandings of whales and dolphins have been recorded around the New Zealand coast.
📷: Patrick Bellett.

Survival is Insufficient

We intervene in other areas too, with natural disasters like fires or floods being a bit of a grey area. While we don’t interfere with the natural order, we’re not messing anything up by stopping a subspecies from snuffing out in a forest fire or gasping their last under floodwaters.

Funnily enough, this seemingly goes against everything I said about not interfering in nature, and about not prioritising individuals. But that’s kind of the whole crux here; nothing about nature is cut and dry, and so neither is DOC’s role in it.

It’s pretty well established that humans are responsible (directly or indirectly) for the decline of many species, so it’s not too much of a stretch to refer us as a natural disaster. But, unlike volcanoes and earthquakes, at least we’re trying to mitigate our effects, and prevent further deterioration in their threat status. Fingers crossed for no more extinctions.

DOC fire rangers monitoring burn-off.
📷: Jimmy Johnson.

Death, the Final Frontier

Animals, in general, die. While it’s never a fun time, it’s usually not because of some apocalyptic event or something that needs immediate intervention. Death is the real final frontier, and will come for us all eventually, no matter how cute or fluffy or endangered we are.

So what do you do when or if you find one of our natives dead or dying? Well, that’s pretty simple: call DOC HOT. The 0800 DOC HOT line is the best way to let us know if there’s an animal that needs our attention, or if there may be an issue at hand.

DOC’s goal is to conserve our native species. Working with the public, government, and iwi, we can help all our endemic species to live long and prosper.

A tūī taking flight. These beautiful manu can often be heard singing their beautiful melodies before they are spotted.
📷: DOC.

For more information on what to do if you find a dead bird, beached marine mammal, or other native animals, head here.

3 responses to Nature is Metal – On Letting Things Take Their Course


    interesting. Nature as a beautiful way of restoring itself


    thought provoking… we almost always… measure within ‘our’ very short… disconnected life spans. Bigger picture… continuously… evolving…


    That is the most beautiful picture of a tui that I’ve seen yet!