New Zealand and the Protection of Endemic Species

The Orokonui visitor centre with the pest proof fence, foreground. Photo: D Neufeld

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by David Neufeld

New Zealander settlers are practical. Progress – generally understood as economic gain – remains a paramount value. Even so there was an early interest in the protection of the impressive and unique array of endemic flora and avifauna which continues in the present.[1] While the earliest work on endemic species preservation looked to scenic views which might translate into tourist dollars and the establishment of island refuges for selected species, a deeper and broader appreciation of this natural heritage legacy has also taken hold.

The Department of Conservation’s current Conservation General Policy notes that, “New Zealand’s unique biodiversity is internationally important. High percentages of the country’s indigenous species are endemic (they are found nowhere else on Earth)… [The] responsibility for their continued existence is entirely ours. [These] species and special places… are valued and enjoyed for their intrinsic values, for what they offer to future generations, and for their contribution towards our identity as New Zealanders.”[2]

To fulfill this mandate the department has an aggressive program of exterminating introduced “pests” where they threaten endemic species. Largely targeted on mammals (especially possum and rats) they include cash bounties, traps and poison.[3] Last weekend my son and I hiked a portion of a 45 kilometre rat trap line in the upper Maruri River valley, one of the South Island’s still indigenous forested valleys. A recent parliamentary review of the use of 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate, New Zealand uses 80% of world supply) concluded that the country was lucky to have such an effective and biodegradable poison at its disposal. Nevertheless debate over its use continues.[4]

The Orokonui visitor centre with the pest proof fence weaving through the foreground. Photo: D Neufeld 083c NZ 2013 11 19 Orokonui (29 mod)
The Orokonui visitor centre with the pest proof fence weaving through the foreground. Photo: D Neufeld 083c NZ 2013 11 19 Orokonui (29 mod)

Public interest groups have also advanced projects to protect and advocate for endemic species. The Orokonui wildlife and native bush reserve (Otago)[5] was initiated in the early 1980s with a focus on bird preservation. Little happened however until the mid-1990s when the opening of the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary near Wellington, on the North Island, revived the South Island proposal. The 307 hectare property with interpretive centre (2009) includes a kiwi nursery and several reptile refuges. The whole property is protected by a 1.9 metre pest proof fence (2007) “designed to keep out all introduced mammals such as cats, possums, rats, stoats, ferrets and even mice. It uses stainless steel mesh that continues down to form a skirt at ground level that prevents animals from burrowing under it. On the top is a curved steel hood that prevents climbing animals like cats and possums from climbing over the top.” Once the fence was erected an aggressive pest eradication program resulted in the shooting and trapping of goats and some 800 possums by ground-based teams. Bait poisoned with brodifacoum was immediately scattered over the fenced areas by aircraft to finish the job. They are very serious about protecting the refugium. An ambitious program of re-introducing endemic plants, birds and reptiles also includes guided hikes through the restored forest.

Interestingly the local Maori Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki became supporters of Orokonui. The cross-cultural element resulted in the establishment of an “archive” of over a hundred of the culturally important Indigenous flax plants from many Maori communities. The local iwi also uses the reserve as a place to demonstrate their traditional knowledge of place and profile their cultural interests and values. In a chat Sue Hensley, the reserve interpreter, acknowledged the significance of both the Maori knowledge contributions to the site and the value of working across cultural lines, not yet a commonplace activity in New Zealand. Even so Canada has much to learn from New Zealand in this regard.

Despite the achievements of the reserve and its staff, partners and numerous volunteers, Hensley expressed concern over the public “blow back” to the investment of resources and sacrifices required to maintain this special environment. She suggested the increasingly urbanized and globalized New Zealand population was becoming less sensitive to the significance and importance of endemic species. People are less prepared to consider the environment, except on their own terms.

They especially don’t like the idea that they should keep tabs on their pets. In January 2013 philanthropic economist Gareth Morgan proposed the eradication of cats in New Zealand. The responses were immediate and visceral, “I wish a wild cat would hunt you down Mr Morgan! Maybe a Tiger or Lion would be best!!!! … There’s a lot of reasons i like animals more than humans (ur a huge 1) We should first look at ourselves and the damage we do to the planet before we blame everything else.”

Screen capture Dec 6, 2013 from
Screen capture Dec 6, 2013 from


Screen capture Dec 6, 2013 from

[1] Paul Star and Lynne Lochhead, Children of the burnt bush: New Zealanders and the indigenous remnant, 1880-1930 in Eric Pawson & Tom Brooking, ed., Making a New Land Environmental histories of New Zealand (New edition, Otago University Press, 2013).

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David Neufeld is an environmental historian in the Yukon. He studies the intersection of knowledge and practice in both Western settler approaches to Canada's North and Yukon First Nations' ways of life in their sub-arctic boreal homelands. His reflexive research approach is grounded in 40 years as a cultural researcher engaging with Indigenous communities on their traditional lands. His complementary travel with both “hunters” and “miners” has made him sensitive to the character of the contact between Indigenous and Newcomer through the 20th century and their changing expectations of each other. He sits as the community representative on the Yukon University Research Ethics Board and previously taught Canadian Northern history and protected area management. He also supports Yukon-based internships of M.A. and PhD. candidates (Univ. of Alaska - Fairbanks, Northwestern University, Ludwig Maximillian Universitat, University of Cambridge, University of Vienna) in Yukon research.

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