16th December 2005
New Zealand’s long isolation from the rest of the world and an absence of mammal predators has resulted in remarkable diversity of bird life, including some of the world’s most unusual species. Many of these species are endemic – found nowhere else in the world – and are of global significance.
But New Zealand has also earned itself the dubious distinction of being the extinction capital of the world, with 58 of our 158 endemic species now extinct and another 43 threatened or endangered. Some of our efforts to bring species back from the brink have been spectacular, the most famous being the Chatham Island’s black robin, and the Department of Conversation (DoC) continues to do some remarkable work with those icons of avian protection – the ground dwelling kakapo and kiwi.
While we can be justly proud of these achievements, there is plenty of evidence to show that our conservation efforts, and especially our funding of conservation, is far below what we owe to both the birds themselves and future generations of New Zealanders.
Many species now survive only on predator free islands and are constantly at risk from invasion by pests. Habitat loss, in particular the loss of lowland forest and wetlands, has dramatically reduced the range occupied by most native species. The number of seabirds under threat is increasing, including major threats to most New Zealand albatrosses and many petrels from long line and other fisheries.
On the mainland, conservation of many species depends on the annual use of poisons such as 1080 and, while these strategies are successful, there is increasing resistance to their use.
According to a major new report, the State of New Zealand Birds 2005, the species in greatest need of further management include the Chatham shag, Pitt Island shag, blue duck, weka, New Zealand dotterel, orange-fronted parakeet, mohua (yellowhead), hihi (stitchbird), rock wren and Stewart Island fernbird. A number of these, such as the stitchbird and red-crowned parakeet, have gone from the mainland and survive only on small offshore islands. The little spotted kiwi and kakapo are true island refugees – neither occurs naturally on any of the islands they inhabit today.
Many mainland species, including most parrots and kiwi, wrybill, black-fronted tern and robins, are probably declining in range and abundance, but there is insufficient data to verify this.
Of the forest birds with no safe island populations the most seriously endangered are the rowi (Okarito kiwi), the genetically distinctive Haast kiwi and orange-fronted parakeet (each with 100-250 individuals) and the mohua (2000-3000).
Our endemic shorebirds are under increasing threat from predation, coastal development, and increasingly intensive pressure from recreation on beaches and estuaries. Of the sixteen species of shorebirds that breed in New Zealand, 13 are in a threat category (from range-restricted to nationally critical). A typical example is the shore plover, once widespread on the mainland, but for the past 100 years surviving only on an island outpost in the Chathams group.
New Zealand also hosts internationally important numbers of migratory waders, including red knot, bar-tailed godwit and turnstone, during their non-breeding season. Their habitat is affected by residential subdivision, stop-banks which encroach on tidal areas, displacement by mangroves, and increased shellfish harvesting.
Perhaps the most seriously affected group is the seabirds. New Zealand is the global centre of seabird diversity, with 85 species known to breed in the region. Rats, cats, feral pigs and mustelids have had a huge impact on coastal breeding sites. Roaming dogs also cause problems, especially to penguins. Gibson’s albatross and Campbell albatross have declined in parallel with observed peaks in fishing activities. Outbreaks of disease have occurred among some seabirds, in particular penguins, but there has been little study to understand why. Information on the status of most petrel colonies is long out of date with the most recent counts for many species being over 20 years old.
Overall it is clear that the Department of Conservation is making significant gains with the management of those most critically endangered species. But there are many other species with populations that are in decline. The fact that we have population data for only two-thirds of our seabirds shows how much work there is to do.
With the exception of the kakapo and kiwi, DoC’s work is done on a shoestring. For many endangered species just a few thousand dollars is available each year for their management.
One can only wonder why funding for this work is given such a low priority. It may be that as a society we have lost touch with the richness of nature’s endowment. It may be that the high profile of the kakapo and kiwi programmes has led to complacency. Whatever the reason, an important part of New Zealand’s natural heritage – and something that goes to the core of our national identity - is suffering from serious neglect.
More resources are obviously part of the solution, but DoC needs support from other organisations to reverse the decline of many of these species. Major community based projects, like the Karori Wildlife Reserve at Wellington, and the 45km fence around Mangatautiri Mountain in the Waikato, have demonstrated the power of grass roots actions. These projects have cost central government virtually nothing and must be encouraged.
New Zealanders have shown they’re very good at devising innovative approaches to save species on the brink of extinction but we are less good at preventing species declining to such perilous levels. If we lose another bird species it will not be through lack of expertise – just a lack of commitment.