By Marie Brown 24/03/2016

New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity is in crisis – a crisis of state and trend, a crisis of governance and a crisis of public engagement – because the fundamental drivers of loss have not been addressed. What follows is the vision articulated in Vanishing Nature to bring solutions together and identify progress in communicating it.

New Zealand has a great many existing advantages: a dedicated national agency for nature conservation; a group of councils increasingly equipped and willing to play their part in addressing biodiversity loss; a private sector with growing interest in contributing positively to conservation outcomes; indigenous peoples with large land-holdings actively involved in conservation; a mature community conservation sector of considerable size and capability; and a history of ably tackling once insurmountable conservation problems through innovative science and research. This is in spite of a comparatively vulnerable biota at the outset due to evolutionary and biogeographic factors.

These advantages position us well to tackle the biodiversity challenge, and to do so while building ecological resilience, providing a strong future for primary industries dependent on natural resources, and both proclaiming and reflecting our ‘100% Pure’ brand. But to unleash these advantages, and protect the public interest in a healthy environment and flourishing native biodiversity, strategic change is needed. Regulatory solutions will get us some of the way, and technical solutions even further. But profound and enduring change will take bigger shifts on bigger scales.

Kokako at Mt Bruce. Flickr CC, doug mak.

This is a call to arms for our natural heritage.

Our vision for conservation of indigenous biodiversity in New Zealand is one of inclusion, collaboration and engagement; an ‘all-in’ approach that provides for participation from all sectors of the community. Transparent and accountable agencies maintain an emphasis on evidence-based conservation planning and prioritisation, to ensure national biodiversity goals are set, and the conservation effort is directed at them as efficiently and effectively as possible. Agencies exercise their functions in an environmentally sympathetic manner, are much less vulnerable to agency capture, and are more focused on outcomes rather than outputs. They take full responsibility for the outcomes achieved.

Our vision includes an adequately funded and fully functional Department of Conservation that forms enduring partnerships with other stakeholders to protect, maintain and restore natural heritage. This is alongside regional councils who are champions of biodiversity protection, particularly on private land. Strong national leadership from both DOC and the oft-absent Ministry for the Environment use their roles to affect the best outcomes. In partnership with iwi and hapū, conservation agencies and groups participate enthusiastically in co-management agreements, which become commonplace. Financial penalties are in place for nature-degrading activities and are sufficient to alter behaviour and drive innovation in all sectors.

With far greater secure funding and technical assistance, community conservation thrives at a much greater scale, with flax-roots achievements making a powerful contribution to the retention of our natural heritage. Landowners and developers resolutely take on a stewardship role for the biodiversity on their properties, and are incentivised and supported to do so. Interventions from environmental policy initiatives to on-the-ground species recovery work are subject to a strong culture of rigorous monitoring, evidence-based evaluation and review. Interventions are prioritised and then evaluated according to the difference they make to securing New Zealand’s biodiversity.

The vision we outline is certainly attractive for many reasons, but achieving it will be no small feat. It relies on behavioural changes at multiple levels and over different timescales. The key tasks can be grouped into six issues to be addressed:

• Funding for conservation

• Aligning divergent interests

• Public mobilisation

• Accountability and monitoring

• Effective legislation, implemented well

• Enhanced front-line conservation

Substantial advances on each of these six issues are needed to halt biodiversity decline and the processes that beget it directly and indirectly: this will involve a mix of strategic, tactical and practical solutions. The right mix will maintain and develop our prosperity. It will do this by putting us on a path for sustainable economic growth that is no longer founded on environmental depletion.

Progress so far

In the year since Vanishing Nature was released, EDS has worked hard to follow through, presenting key messages from the book to as many audiences as possible and providing specificity to development related solutions in the follow-up publication ‘Pathways to Prosperity’ and also the land use intensity tax idea and improvements to the use of biodiversity offsets in articles published in a recent special edition of Policy Quarterly. Our 2015 conference ‘Wild Things: addressing terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity loss’ was our largest ever, bringing together more than 300 people to discuss progress on biodiversity management and the road ahead. We have donated hundreds of copies to key persons, including the CEOs of all regional councils and unitary authorities.

Media uptake was significant following the book’s launch and good, but less intense, coverage continues. Several universities and high schools have drawn the book into their curriculum and more than 20 organisations have requested talks and seminars based on the book and subsequent work by the lead authors. These invitations continue today. We have had numerous useful interactions with government departments and councils and will continue to develop that dialogue. Our key message is that biodiversity loss is not inevitable, it is a choice.

As I conclude this series, I’d like to extend special thanks to Dr Theo Stephens who has helped produce each and every blog and indeed all the media and the book itself in his own time. Further thanks are due to the funders of the publication, those that have purchased it and the staff of EDS for their consistent support. Special thanks are also due to the team at the Science Media Centre for their support in the production of these blogs!

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 blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Stewart Baird.

0 Responses to “Part 9 Vision: Biodiversity loss is not inevitable: it is a choice – your choice!”

  • Again, although we undoubtedly could do more to protect our biodiversity, there is no “crisis”. The situation here in NZ is pretty good compared with overseas. The overwhelming majority of our native species are secure. Many of them are doing just fine in modified environments. For example, native dung beetles are very likely to be far more abundant now than in pre-European times, with much greater mammalian dung resources in our native forests to exploit. We somehow need to find a way to realistically quantify the state of NZ biodiversity, without just claiming “crisis” for the purposes of advocacy.

    • Can you provide any evidence to back up your statement that the overwhelming majority of our native species are secure? I’d be very interested to see how you define ‘secure’. What proportion of our native fish are endangered? How about our native birds? And the reptiles? We have had a long, ongoing decline in our native species with ever increasing numbers and proportions being considered in risk of extinction as I understand it.

      According to one source I have over 60% of the native freshwater native species are threatened with extinction. Over 3,800 terrestrial, freshwater and marine species are listed as threatened, almost four times as many as in the 1990s. Seven of NZ’s ten offical ‘indicator species’ for measuring Biodiveristy status are threatened. About 2/3rd of NZ seabirds are listed as threatened with extinction (and NZ is the seabird capital of the world).

      You may not call this a crisis but I would. How much more do we need before it meets your definition? We have a number of species found only in NZ on the very brink of extinction with fewer than 100 or 200 individuals.

    • Stephen, while we appreciate your engagement in Sciblogs content, some of your comments are becoming very unproductive especially when you are not backing up your claims. We deal in facts, so if you are unable to substantiate what you’re saying then please stick to points that you can or we will start moderating your comments.
      – Sciblogs admin.

  • @Sarah-Jane O’Connor That’s not fair! I am the one who is objecting to loaded language like “crisis” being used without anything to back them up. That’s the whole point. What is being written here isn’t science, but just political agenda.

    @Frances S The majority of our native species are terrestrial invertebrates, followed probably by marine inverts. Sure, some freshwater fish, birds and reptiles might be critically endangered, and there might even be a “crisis” for those taxa, but there most certainly is not an overall biodiversity crisis in NZ. You say [quote]We have a number of species found only in NZ on the very brink of extinction with fewer than 100 or 200 individuals[unquote], but that number is SMALL relative to overall native biodiversity. It may be a crisis for those species, but not overall. Also, please define what you mean by “threatened with extinction”, and support your claims accordingly with actual examples (you will need lots and lots of examples to substantiate the claim of an overall “biodiversity crisis” in NZ!)

    • Hi Stephen,
      I took the time to some evidence to back my query – it’s your turn now. What is your evidence that the overwhelming majority are not threatened?

      For threatened with extinction – the definition used is the official NZ threat classification system.

      • Hi Francis,

        Well, you have made it very easy for me, though I’m not going to spend hours actually doing the math – that’s up to you. You need to:

        (1) Count the total number of species currently regarded as being threatened with extinction (the definition used is the official NZ threat classification system);

        (2) Count the total number of species tagged as either endemic or indigenous on NZOR (;

        (3) Represent (1) as a fraction of (2), and I bet anything it is a very small fraction indeed!

        Objective enough for you?? And I do hope you aren’t going to say that only vertebrates and vascular plants count!



  • If you want to use only sheer numbers you may technically be correct. But I think it is a bit facile.

    Here is a link describing the threat classification system:

    I have gone to the effort to provide a bit more evidence to support the claim that there is a major problem. To those who value NZ native biodiversity – I think crisis is a justifiable term. There is of course a crisis only if one cares about these things. It implies a value judgement. What is a crisis to some folks, is nothing to others.

    It also implies scale – and I think unless you go for sheer numbers only of all species (which we don’t know much about) then it is a crisis. For the species we know the most about – are all in deep decline and many have already disappeared.

    New Zealand has one of the highest rates of threatened native species in the world. For example, 34% of plants are considered to be at some level of risk, and 37% of the 215 native birds are listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

    Adding to the issue and making it easy to say there is no problem is the lack of funding to survey, describe or name species. ‘Although 30,000 native New Zealand species have so far been identified and named, there are possibly a further 50,000 that are as yet unidentified. Most of these are insects, worms, fungi, or micro-organisms such as algae. Some of these may be threatened, and some may have already been lost without ever being scientifically described.’ Which means many species are ‘data deficient’.

    It is very clear the overall trends are downward. Of course many species adapt or do well in modified environments – but many very uniquely NZ species are not doing well even in remote areas due to the introduction of mammalian predators, herbivores and weed species.

    From Statistic NZ for 2005: ‘This indicator reports changes in the threat status of native species for which sufficient data exists…. Between 2002 and 2005, the threat status worsened for 40 species and improved for only five. Of these 40 threatened species, 5 were previously classified as ‘not threatened’. In addition to these 40, seven were confirmed as extinct, although actual extinction may have occurred many years ago (see figure 2a)…. In 2005, New Zealand listed 2,788 native species and other taxonomic units (groups of organisms) as threatened (see figure 2b), up from 2,372 in 2002.’

    Another source of information is here:

    Below some of the information from the latest ‘NZ State of the Environment’:

    Wetlands occupied about 249,776ha (0.9 percent) of New Zealand’s land area in 2008. This is one-tenth of their estimated extent before human habitation (2,471,083ha or 9.2 percent). Draining wetlands for agricultural and urban development over the past 150 years has significantly reduced their extent, leading to a loss of biodiversity and natural function.

    Animal and plant pests are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in the land environment. Pest predators (such as stoats and possums) eat eggs, birds, lizards, insects, and snails. Other animal pests (such as deer and goats) damage and kill trees and other plants, and can compete with indigenous animals for the plant fruit and seed. Pest plants can outgrow the local vegetation. All these activities can dramatically change our indigenous and agricultural environments.

    In 2014, except for some offshore islands and fenced sanctuaries, exotic pests were found over almost all (96.5 percent) land areas of New Zealand.
    – Stoats, possums, and rats were present across 96.5, 94.3, and 94.1 percent of New Zealand, respectively.
    – Red deer and feral goats were present across 57.2 percent and 30.3 percent of New Zealand respectively.
    – Himalayan tahr were present across 7.5 percent of New Zealand (in alpine regions of the South Island).
    – Wilding pines (conifer species, including Douglas fir and lodgepole pine that have spread outside plantations) were present across 6.3 percent of New Zealand.

    Marine mammals:
    Of our 30 resident indigenous species and subspecies (taxa), eight (27 percent) are threatened with extinction, and nine (30 percent) are not threatened.
    – Five species (17 percent) are classified as nationally critical, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild: southern elephant seal, orca, Bryde’s whale, and two endemic species (found only in New Zealand), New Zealand sea lion and Māui’s dolphin.
    – We also have three species classified as nationally endangered, facing a high risk of extinction: Hector’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, and southern right whale.

    New Zealand has 92 seabird and 14 shorebird species and subspecies (taxa) – the highest number of endemic seabirds (found only in a particular area) in the world. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s seabird species breed in the New Zealand region, and almost 10 percent breed only here.

    About one-third (32 of 92) of New Zealand’s resident indigenous seabird taxa and more than half (8 of 14) of our resident indigenous shorebird taxa are threatened with extinction.

    See the Department of Conservation’s Threatened species categories for more information about the NZTCS categories.

    Rare ecosystems either naturally cover very small areas or have very little of their original extent remaining.

    In 2014, New Zealand had 71 identified rare ecosystems, with 45 of them threatened with extinction.
    – Of the 45 threatened ecosystems, 18 were classified as critically endangered (the highest level of threat), 17 as endangered, and 10 as vulnerable.
    – Inland and alpine systems had the largest number of rare ecosystems (30), with just over half (16) threatened.
    – In contrast, 10 of 13 coastal ecosystems and 10 of 15 wetland ecosystems were threatened.

    Above is from the Environmental indicators Te taiao Aotearoa which is part of New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Series produced by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand.

  • Hi again Frances,
    Again, if you consider only native birds and mammals, they might be in “crisis”, but the overwhelming majority of NZ native biodiversity is inverts – terrestrial (mostly) and marine. Therefore, as I have already stated, the overwhelming majority of NZ native biodiversity is not threatened with extinction (see the maths in my post above) and therefore there is no “biodiversity crisis” overall in NZ. You are cherry picking. Rare ecosystems may have always been rare, and do not, by very definition, contain the majority of biodiversity! Their loss would only make a small dent in overall biodiversity. Exotic pests may well be found over most of the land area (and also in the oceans and waterways), but not to the exclusion of everything else. They may be having a small detrimental affect on some native biodiversity, but not to the point of “crisis”.

  • Hum – my reply has shown up above Stephen’s comment even though it was in response. So is out of order. Makes a bit more sense if read after his.

  • Hi Stephen,

    Just a thought:

    “though I’m not going to spend hours actually doing the math – that’s up to you” — in other words you’re not going to substantiate your claim, but ask that others do the work.

    It’s a variant of reversing the burden of proof. To substantiate a claim, you have to do the leg work I’m afraid!

    Might be easier to point to something that already done the analysis!


  • Frances: “Hum – my reply has shown up above Stephen’s comment even though it was in response. So is out of order. Makes a bit more sense if read after his.”

    Mine too! Ah, well… 🙂

    • Stephen ignored a warning about the nature of his comments so his further contributions will have to wait until we at Sciblogs are able to moderate them – that will be after the Easter weekend. Thanks for your contributions, Frances and Grant. Happy Easter.

  • @Stephen Thorpe – I’ve published your pending comments relating to the topic – sorry about the delay over the Easter break. I think this is an important debate to have. But I like to think Sciblogs readers and commentors are willing and able to turn up to the debate with evidence to back up their claims. Dr Brown has extensively researched the issue and characterised the biodiversity loss as a “crisis”. Others such as Stephen may disagree with that. But we need to back our stance up with evidence for it to be credible. Where, for instance as Frances asks, is the compelling evidence to suggest that “the overwhelming majority of our native species are secure”? That’s not typically what I’m hearing from the scientists publishing in this area, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise. Of course, statistics may not sort this argument out. “Crisis” is a subjective judgement – it may well be that the majority of our native species are stable or growing, but that many of them, including the most iconic ones, are struggling and losing their habitat. Does that constitute a ‘crisis’? That’s the heart of the matter… (Sciblogs Ed)

  • Clearly, we have a advocate active here, trying to lobby for better funding for conservation (and thereby for people who choose to do conservation related things for a job). Fine, but since we are supposed to be objective scientists, we should not be using alarmist rhetoric (e.g. “crisis”) lightly. I have already indicated (above) that the overwhelming majority of our native species are not considered to be threatened (I haven’t done the math, but it is obvious that the result is going to be less than one percent, and since when is a problem which is less than 1% as severe as it might be a “crisis”?) @Peter Griffin: Since when is “Of course, statistics may not sort this argument out” a way to dismiss hard data?? Actually, I don’t need to claim that that the overwhelming majority of our native species are not considered to be threatened. All I need to claim is that no compelling evidence has been presented here for the claim that there is a “biodiversity crisis” in NZ (so the onus really is on Marie Brown to demonstrate that there is such a crisis). There may be particular crises for particular taxa, but there is a huge jump from that to claiming an overall “biodiversity crisis” in NZ. By analogy, a few countries in financial crisis does not necessarily amount to a global financial crisis. It is very unclear what Marie Brown actually means by “biodiversity crisis”, as one expects from alarmist rhetoric. I therefore wish to make it very clear to the reader that the overwhelming majority of our native species are not considered to be threatened, in order to prevent one major possible misunderstanding of the situation in NZ.

  • Up to the reader to decide if below is a crisis or not.

    NZ had a higher proportion of native species that are threatened than any other country in the world.
    (Bradshw et al. 201.0 Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. PloS ONE.)

    The majority (as in more than 50%) of native species of fish, lizards and birds are either declining, threatened or extinct. NZ has some of the highest endemism rates in the world – which means this has global implications.

    Of the naturally uncommon ecosystems a third are not threatened, 49% are endangered or critically endangered. (Holdaway et al. 2012. Status assessment of NZ’s naturally uncommon ecosystems. Conservation Biology 26:619-629.)

    The proportion of vascular plant species that are declining or threatened has been rapidly increasing over the last 10 years.

    The drivers of decline do not appear to be changing, and if anything, are probably increasing.