The last month there's been the odd noise made by conservationists that not all is well in NZ. One catalyst for this was the remarks by Dr Mike Joy in the Dominion Post. Another has been the poaching of jeweled geckos in Otago. The suggestion that such geckos should be bred to reduce poaching was met with by a chorus of opposition (Otago Daily Times).
The current strategy we have to save endangered species, is basically to treat conservation as a money sink. The problem is, that it's failing. After the National Biodiversity strategy was launched, the 5 year review found that only 2-3% of the DoC estate was getting optimal management. Nearly half was receiving no management at all. Now we're about 10 years on. Joy points out that 35% of our native plants and animals are on the brink of extinction. That however, doesn't include the 3000-4000 species on which we have no data on their conservation status.
How are we doing?- well, we've got about 200 endangered species under active management. That doesn't mean that their status is improving. But that's about 200 out of 2788 recognised endangered or threatened species and another 3000-4000 that nobody has had a chance to look at.
Everybody who is familiar with conservation in New Zealand knows this. We're busy watching stuff decline, populations get snuffed out in different areas over decades. I'm sick of it. We're failing. There's no point pretending that this isn't happening.
My problem isn't that we're not using other strategies- perhaps with increased commercial or private factors- my problem is that nobody is prepared to even consider varying what we do.
Consider some of the remarks made in response to the idea that maybe, we could use commercial incentives with jeweled geckos.
…But I haven't seen anything to convince me commercialisation would be a good idea. "We're talking about endangered native species, not pets or farm animals. We have a duty to protect them and their habitat, certainly, as they're part of our national identity. To move beyond that into breeding and selling wildlife like kakapo, kiwi or tuatara on a commercial market is not something I believe New Zealanders would accept.
– Kate Wilkinson, Minister of Conservation
I always find it funny that I'm willing to accept the slaughter of thousands of kiwis by predators over the last decade, but not commercialisation. Commercialisation isn't the issue. The issue is whether the strategy we adopt for a particular species, leads to a recovery of that species. That's what I want to know. I can see we have a lot less kiwis than we had in the 1980s. I can see that kakapo has become extinct almost its entire natural range.
Let's have a look at what Australia did with salt-water crocodiles since the 1980s:
There was a conservation problem, commercial incentives were incorporated into the plan, and we now have a lot more crocodiles. Let me suggest that if we had this level of success with any our 200 species under active management, we'd still be celebrating.
Instead we have policy makers deciding that we'd rather see tens-of-thousands of kiwis get slaughtered over the last two decades- to have less kiwis- because the principle of being anti-commercialisation matters more than getting a positive conservation outcome.
I think we need to have policy-makers making less decisions on what our principles should be, and more on preventing extinctions by being open to anything that is going to help. For some species, there will be economic factors that are contributing to their decline. And in those cases, a solution based on economics might in fact work. We shouldn't be afraid to discuss it.
Doc [the Department of Conservation] is firmly opposed to the commercial trade of endangered wildlife. We are fully committed to ensuring threatened species like Otago's jewelled gecko thrive in the wild – not in some unnatural breeding cages for sale.
– A Department of Conservation spokesman
Again, missing the point. The problem with the jeweled gecko is the current trade strategy isn't leading to more geckos in the wild. The current "non-commercial" strategy isn't designed to increase wild gecko numbers. It's designed to increase the poaching level by inflating gecko prices overseas. We are in effect, putting a bounty on each jeweled gecko for any poacher to collect. We're promising to enrich poachers by rewarding them to reduce wild numbers.
This is insane.
The idea that is being proposed is that by incorporating some commercial elements into the gecko recovery, we might actually have more wild geckos. I kind of thought that might merit a bit more deliberation.
So often conservationists seem to get locked into the idea that commercial use is a binary decision. Either you use protection, or carte blanche open sale. This is the wrong way to be thinking about it. Using economic incentives- such as regulated trade (quotas, permits etc)- is just another policy tool that can be incorporated into a conservation programme. It's not going to suit all species, and it doesn't preclude other conservation measures.
This is really something that needs to be debated and discussed rationally- and with evidence. The frustrating thing here is simply, we're not having this debate. So let's just ponder whether the type of recovery Australia got with its crocodiles is something we really do aspire to achieve for our native species.