By Marie Brown 29/01/2016

The extraordinary specialness of our wildlife and ecosystems is internationally renowned. New Zealand is a global biodiversity hotspot with deep time endemism.

This means that not only are things here pretty special, but they’ve been that way for millions of years. A unique identity for New Zealanders has been forged from this environment, and our natural capital has phenomenal economic value, particularly as the underpinning for agriculture and the lure for tourism: together our two largest industries.

In less than a thousand years, this age-old natural world was irreversibly changed by a succession of colonisations. The visible alterations to the land and seascapes triggered waves of environmental caring that have been a recurrent feature of New Zealand society for at least a century. One expression of this is the plethora of legal obligations for environmental protection and stewardship, including a dedicated national agency for conservation (the Department of Conservation, DOC).

Tongariro National Park (Photo credit: Gareth McGregor)
Tongariro National Park (Photo credit: Gareth McGregor)

DOC (and its predecessors) were charged with crucial statutory roles of maintaining our extensive protected area network, including National Parks, and also carrying out other statutory functions such as advocating for the protection of wildlife on private land. The Ministry for the Environment, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment also have environmental roles, while regional and local government exercise the widest of functions.

A thriving NGO (Fish and Game, Environmental Defence Society) and philanthropic sector (NEXT Foundation) bolsters government efforts, filling important gaps and leading public opinion. Community conservation groups are growing in both number and size, and have become increasingly professional, strategic and vocal, involving many thousands of people who give time and money to their causes.

Taken in aggregate, one would think our biodiversity and the state of the environment was secure and the prosperity these provide similarly assured.

But it isn’t.

New Zealand is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, leading the world with the highest proportion of threatened species. All our indigenous lizards, our bats and frogs are unique to New Zealand, and the great majority (around 75%) are Threatened or At Risk of extinction. Some 40% of our birds and plants are at risk, with 74% of our freshwater fish in big trouble too. For a country that prides itself on being clean and green, the numbers tell a very different story.

Why are we failing to safeguard nature, and with it, our prosperity as a nation? I’ll explore this in the next instalment.

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This ten part blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Milford Sound, Loïc Lagarde.