By Jamie Steer 15/12/2018 14


‘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.

Read the next instalment here. Or begin at the start of this series.

Featured image: Kiwi statue, Queenstown New Zealand. See Pxhere


14 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 2 – Natives define us”

  • Hi Jamie.

    “a former staff member at the Department of Conservation – someone who is still a very committed conservationist”

    Fair enough to note that someone said that but without context I don’t think saying they were a former DOC staffer really means much considering the wide range of people DOC employs for widely varying reasons.

    If you’re going to use that as a qualifier to enhance the perception of their view, what was their role, when and in what context?

  • I like your picture of the carved kiwi. If we accept and value the mustelids, soon this will be the only kiwi we have.

    Of course New Zealanders are happy to value species that are not destroying our native wildlife. But the mammalian predators, and the “game” species, pigs, deer, goats, chamois, thar, present us with an either-or choice. We can accept and value them, and kiss our endemic biodiversity good-bye. Or not.

  • Sue’s comment seems pretty typical of the New Zealand culture, it’s unrealistically and unhrlpfully, very binary. I find that view immature and old-fashioned to by honest. Especially with the ecological developments from around the globe. We are definitely not living in a bicultural society here (eg there are many populations where Asians outnumber Māori, and self-identifying as Māori is in itself, a misleading label), nor are we involved in a zero sum ‘war’ against so-called pests. As Jamie quite rightly points out, it’s time to accept the fluid nature of eco-systems. That doesn’t mean ‘giving up’ on ‘native’ species, it simply means giving them a genuinely protective environment, without poisons and away from human interference.

  • When I sailed in here it was pretty hard to get provisions. We relied on the natives to bring food to our ship. Fortunately they told us that their ancestors had brought kumara and yams, but as for meat they said the large roasting birds had now all disappeared. They did find some weka and small rats, though best of all were the native pigs they reared and fortunately abundant sea food.
    We thought it our duty to improve their diet by giving the natives some seeds they could grow, this unfortunate land was devoid of proper food plants and no useful animals apart from kune kune pigs and yellow dogs. We left some of our ships pigs, chickens, beans, wheat and barley. On searching in land we realised this was a land of birds, so remote that any land mammals had found it impossible to reach except by the fortunate hand of man. As this land belongs to all living creatures we knew that for it to become a welcoming place for further human habitation from Europe it required a variety of new species to make it a welcoming and interesting place. We look forward to the future and hope that this land of forests and clouds becomes a truly gorgeous place alive with animals and birds. Yours truly, James

  • Hi Jamie. I don’t think you are, but I was hoping to learn more about their role in order to better understand the perspective they’re coming from.

  • There are many cultural landscapes created through the introduction of foreign species that we hold dear, such as the thyme through central otago and the russell lupins through the McKenzie country. I think it very unlikely that we will be able to remove these species which are impacting the structure and function of native ecosystems given the cultural value and tourism value. But really if we talk about ‘restoration’ we don’t know what the structure and function of ecosystems were before they were modified and when we do ‘restoration’ work, we are driven by a desire to conserve something we place value on. In some instances systems have changed considerably and may no longer be able to provide the habitat or interactions species require to be sustained, what impact will changing climate have on niches? Perhaps we need to look at how our iconic species can be conserved within novel ecosystems.

  • Yes, I know that you think Herculean measures like Operation Nest Egg extended to all species, and fenced sanctuaries where our remaining endemic species could shelter, would allow us to welcome and value the rats, stoats and possums. But why would we subject the NZ species to these intrusive measures, and accept that most people would never get to see them, in order to protect species that most of us don’t in fact welcome and value? PF2050 is a much better option.

    • This post is on the contributions – potential or otherwise – of introduced species to our collective sense of identity, alongside natives. I’m keen to discuss that through these comments. But also keen to explore the recognition that it’s not all about us and what we want.

  • So bringing in predators & competitors to a country where their natural controls didn’t exist, and where the prey/competing species have evolved in their absence & so lack adaptations that might allow survival, wasn’t so bad? Not to mention the large-scale ecosystem changes wrought by habitat destruction by humans? Really? I think this is special pleading: neither earthquakes nor eruptions are likely to cause the near and total extinctions that we’ve seen as a result of mammalian introductions in NZ.