‘It’s hard to swallow giving up ur Godzone…’ (Feedback on Kim Hill interview).
We have this idea in NZ that our national identity, at least when it comes to wildlife, is defined almost solely by our native species.
Sure, we accept cows and kiwifruit and so on when in farmed or horticultural settings, but with the notable exception of introduced game species (which are another story), we don’t generally have much time for the non-native in our wildlife – certainly not in the conservation estate.
But what I would venture is that that way of framing our identity is very much just a current choice that we make. It’s not a fact. And it’s a choice that we can change as well, remembering that in the mid-1800s in New Zealand colonial New Zealanders defined themselves largely by introduced species.
At that time they saw introduced species as defining their national identity and natives essentially as foreigners. Our views since that time have basically reversed – they’ve gone from one extreme to the other with little pause for thought or consideration since.
It’s clear that we often seem to use wildlife as props for expressing our visions of a puristic national identity. And that identity is currently defined not only by the presence of valued natives, but also the absence of any ostensibly foreign wildlife.
As one of my PhD interviewees informed me:
‘The best conservationists in New Zealand are the best murderers essentially. That’s the guts of it. And the more mustelids or rats or whatever it might be that you can kill the more effective you’re going to be at your job’
That was a former staff member at the Department of Conservation – someone who is still a very committed conservationist. But a lot of people in New Zealand are like this too. They see their role as compassionate killers, removing the species that don’t belong and supporting those that do.
And for a lot of people killing pests is a really important part of expressing that sense of identity. As anthropologist Nicholas Smith reflected when considering conservation in Australia recently:
‘…for many conservationists, getting rid of feral biota (and reintroducing native ones) is a way of making the country and themselves more Australian’ (Smith, 2011).
I think this comment holds even more so for here in New Zealand. But what I’d suggest is that our wildlife doesn’t have to be defined entirely by our native species – that’s a choice again that we’re currently making.
In many other countries introduced species have come to be regarded as important facets of their wildlife and their sense of local and national identity. In many European countries, for example, introduced species are highly treasured features of their wild biota.
It’s also important to note that identities are not just defined by things but also by processes and influences. A recent survey of people in the Mediterranean islands, for example, found that people there considered the local environment to be characterized in many ways by sustained anthropomorphic environmental change.
As the authors of the study summarised, many people thought that the environment of the Mediterranean islands:
‘should be allowed to continue to evolve within the changing cultural landscapes as they had for millennia’ (Bardsley and Edwards-Jones, 2006).
These sorts of sentiments are expressed not just in the Old World, but also in the New World too. Central American Ecologist Ariel Lugo, for example:
‘…finds it difficult to despise invasive trees as he thinks many of his colleagues do, and even embraces the change: “My parents and their parents saw one Puerto Rico, and I am going to see another Puerto Rico, and my children will see another” (in Marris, 2009).
Taking a few of these threads in mind, I think there is scope for us here in New Zealand to start to think a little more holistically, and a little more inclusively, about our own sense of national identity and how many of our wild introduced species often contribute to that identity, alongside their native counterparts.
Featured image: Kiwi statue, Queenstown New Zealand. See Pxhere