In a recent article in The Spinoff, the Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki makes three arguments.
First, that native species and introduced predators in New Zealand cannot co-exist. Second, that conservation should be undertaken not only in sanctuaries, but also on private land. And third, that it is the indigenous subset of our biodiversity that fundamentally defines us as a nation.
These arguments are made in direct response to last month’s Stuff article on introduced wildlife that features perspectives from a range of environmental academics and industry folk. I think two of Mrs Toki’s arguments widely miss the mark and the third deserves much closer scrutiny. Let me explain why.
Argument one: Co-existence isn’t possible
Mrs Toki writes that ‘some recent commentary has suggested that native species and introduced predators might peacefully co-exist and that therefore we should focus on the ecosystems of the future, rather than the ecosystems of the past. If that is what New Zealand decided to do’ she warns ‘we would be making a very stark choice’.
The Ambassador later re-emphasises this point, fuming that ‘[t]he idea that we have a reasonable choice, that our threatened species can somehow ‘co-exist’ with the onslaught of introduced predators is irresponsible and untrue’. This stance has latterly been parroted by an admirer in a New Zealand Herald opinion piece.
On the face of it this argument is hard hitting but, upon closer inspection, it is clear that Mrs Toki attacks a straw man. No commentators in the article to which she refers suggest that native species can, under all circumstances, co-exist with introduced predators. The closest any of the commentators get to such a suggestion is in the paraphrasing of my comments:
‘Rather than concentrating on eradication, Steer says we should research ways introduced predators and New Zealand’s treasured birds, lizards and bugs can co-exist. Some species, like kakapo, will be too vulnerable, and too threatened to risk co-existence. But other natives might survive if managed intensively when they’re most vulnerable – nesting or roosting – in the same way Operation Nest Egg rears kiwi in predator-free safety and releases them into the wild once they can fend for themselves’.
As you can see, this makes it perfectly clear that co-existence is no one stop shop. And in fact this should have been a fairly uncontentious point to make anyway given that we already use a number of methods to foster co-existence between vulnerable natives species and introduced predators in New Zealand, besides Operation Nest Egg.
Other familiar examples include providing rock gardens for native lizards (for them to safely hide in) or protecting bird nests with metal tree bands (so that predators can’t climb up to them). I simply stressed that we should do more of it and explore more ways of doing it better.
The issue of scale also needs to be considered. While some species likely cannot exist in the same places, this does not mean that we cannot have places for both. In fact, that is what a large part of our existing conservation efforts revolve around (i.e., protected, managed areas). The fact that kakapo can’t compete with stoats is no automatic argument for getting rid of all stoats – only for places where kakapo do not encounter them.
Argument two: Conservation beyond protected areas
Mrs Toki writes that ‘we can do much more for our wildlife than to relegate species to living behind fences or in designated areas somewhere away from us out in the bush’. She prescribes that ‘the recipe for enhancing the survival of much of New Zealand’s wildlife is relatively simple – remove the pests and protect habitat’.
Again, the Ambassador constructs a bogeyman. No one interviewed in the Stuff article suggests that conservation of native species should be restricted to sanctuaries. This is made particularly plain in paraphrased comments from fellow Sciblogger Wayne Linklater:
‘[H]e advocates [for] an extended national network of predator-free sanctuaries such as Wellington’s Zealandia – connected either by habitat corridors or translocation of individual animals, and surrounded by “halos” where pest control allows threatened species to safely spill over beyond the sanctuary fence’.
These areas ‘beyond the sanctuary fence’ include vast areas where our people live, with many mainland sanctuaries located within close proximity to urban centres. As for the ‘relatively simple’ solution that Mrs Toki suggests (i.e., remove the pests and protect habitat), if it were so simple why would we still be struggling so much?
It’s because removing introduced predators alone is hard enough, but removing the hundreds of pest plants and animals in New Zealand is near on impossible. Realistically, we can remove (or more likely control) a sub-set of them from a sub-set of the country, as we currently do. But we’ll have to learn to live with them in many other areas whether we like it or not.
In other words, we’ll have to compromise. Native species won’t be able to live everywhere they did in the past. Not if we want to live here too. And not if we want to share the country with the thousands other species we’ve introduced – the vast majority of which are not weed or pest species.
And just protecting habitat is not going to be enough to sustain all of our native biodiversity either. Not with such vast tracts of our lowland forests and wetlands gone. We’ll have to extend these former areas if we want to even maintain our native biodiversity. And, frankly, that won’t be possible everywhere.
Again, we’ll have to compromise. We don’t get to have everything as it was before we arrived – and we wouldn’t want that really anyway, else where would we live ourselves? This is the sort of nexus where populist conservation idealism runs up hard against reality.
Argument three: Native species define us
The Ambassador writes that ‘New Zealanders are quite simply defined by our natural environment, in particular our native flora and fauna’, noting that their protection is ‘a responsibility that we hold dear to our hearts’.
Once again, it is a little unclear which shadow Mrs Toki is boxing with on this one. But this is tried and true nationalist conservation rhetoric in New Zealand. It’s also symptomatic of the biodiversity debate in general with ‘our wildlife’ constantly reduced to indigenous biodiversity only. In so doing, it obscures the reality of what our wildlife is today – a rich mixture of native and introduced.
We can’t keep erasing the fact that the species that we introduced, whether managed or not, are ‘ours’ too – even the ones we later decided were a mistake. They’re our responsibility as well. And a future where people learn to accept the presence of our introduced species is not so horrifying. After all, introductions generally increase diversity in New Zealand on a local, regional and national level (because more species are introduced than go extinct because of them).
If we want people to truly connect with nature we should encourage them to look no further than the species, native and introduced, they see day-to-day outside their windows, whether blackbirds, silvereyes, possums, fantails or hedgehogs. It’s not this harsh choice of one or the other. Not everywhere at least.
We don’t have to define ourselves solely by our native wildlife either – many already don’t. Consider the important contributions from the likes of wild pigs, kiore, trout, deer, mallards, lupins and many others besides. And let’s not forget the valued native species that now grow wild beyond their natural range as well.
New Zealand’s wildlife, and its contribution to our sense of local place and identity, is defined by more than just the species we arrived to find (and the places and arrangements we found them in). We’ve got to do better in this space.
Conversations about conservation are necessary
Ultimately, discussion and debate around our options for conservation in New Zealand is a positive. These deliberations were always going to ramp up in response to the National Government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative. And indeed open dialogue was initially welcomed by the Government. What we are increasingly seeing now, though, is that the airing of different views is not really encouraged, only different views that amount to support.
This is nowhere more manifest than in the Threatened Species Ambassador’s aggressive stance on this matter. But other examples are in the eye-raising attitude of the Director of the National Science Challenges’ Andrea Byrom who claimed that recent criticism of Predator Free 2050 amounted to ‘manufacturing dissent’ (specifically rejecting the framing that it is an extreme ‘eradicate everywhere’ policy…which is of course precisely what it is).
Prominent Predator Free advocate James Russell has been similarly truculent – joining Byrom in taking every opportunity to devise positive populist allusions for everything he likes and negative ones for everything he doesn’t. On the topic of co-existence between native and introduced predators, for example, he was paraphrased remarking that the issue is:
‘[L]ike getting a pet dog. Yes, you have a responsibility to the dog, but if it starts eating your neighbour’s chickens, you also have a responsibility to deal with that’.
Good point. But the real question is: how would you deal with this issue? Would you poison the dog? Would you lay a trap out to break its neck? Would you try to genetically engineer infertility in dogs? Or would you try to figure out how to ensure that the dog and the chicken can both live in the country? I know which option I’d prefer.
Maybe the simple reality is that the dog isn’t going to be able to live everywhere in New Zealand but, then again, maybe neither is the chicken. Welcome to democracy?
One thing I do know is that we’re going to have to figure out how to talk more openly about this stuff. These sorts of debates can be suppressed and obfuscated for a time – especially if government resources are directed toward doing so. But they won’t just go away.
That’s because, try as some may to present it as such, this isn’t a contest between good guys and bad guys. It’s about sincere and perfectly legitimate differences over how to interpret and respond to environmental change. Rather than trying to eliminate differences through top-down denunciations, let’s instead work toward a place where many perspectives and approaches toward the management of our biodiversity can co-exist.
Featured image: Newborn ferret kit (because sweetness and vulnerability is not limited to native animals). See Creative Commons.