By Jamie Steer 16/12/2018

We often frame our relationship with introduced species in New Zealand this way – as a war, a fight, a battle. And there are plenty of examples of it, most recently in the Department of Conservation’s ‘War on Weeds’ or its ‘Battle for our Birds’.

War metaphors feature prominently in both popular and scientific literatures in New Zealand. They set up the notion that introduced species are fighting against us and deliberately contradicting our interests. They also construct the idea that native species are in an alliance with us, which is, rather curiously, the opposite construction to that of colonial New Zealanders.

I’ve got a number of problems with our use of war metaphors in relation to introduced wildlife (also see here).


The first one is that it’s just fundamentally inaccurate.

The framing of war is incorrect because, of course, these species are not remotely conscious of our militant intentions and nor are they capable of understanding them. So while we often talk about ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ introduced species I’d suggest that a more accurate way to frame the engagement would be to use words like ‘slaughter’ or ‘massacre’.

While I appreciate that that may seem a little deflating – and it certainly makes it more difficult for us to feel like the heroic parties in this equation – I think it’s important to be using the most accurate terminology to frame what we’re actually doing here. Let’s not try and dress this up as something it’s not, regardless of how well-meaning we may be.


Second, the framing of a war is unethical. Wars themselves almost always promote injustice and collateral damage. One only needs to look at the war in Syria at the moment to see that. As the old quote goes ‘In times of war the laws fall silent’. So wars are hardly something to aspire to.

Let’s also reflect that we have important responsibilities toward animal welfare under the Animal Welfare Act, the Wildlife Act and other legislation and national-level direction in New Zealand. A framing of war is not going to lead us down the path of good outcomes for animal welfare, in fact, quite the opposite.

(Just as an aside, the former Conservation Minister seemed very fond of the featured image on this post of herself and a takakē. But I’ve always felt that it looked a lot like she was trying to strangle that poor bird. Very curious photo. I’ll come back to that later).

Prevents conversation

Third, the frame of war prevents people from questioning our current management practices. It prevents intelligent and reasonable conversation. Anyone who questions a war is, of course, unpatriotic or even heretical. To me, and many others writing in the literature, this is an extremely unproductive outcome.

Trying to shut down dissent and critical analysis, which is what the framing of war does, is fundamentally anti-science.

Failed strategy

Lastly, war is just a failed strategy. After over a century of warfare – or the framing of wars against wildlife – we’ve actually eradicated very little from this country. With the exception of some localised biosecurity operatives, most of our target species have expanded their populations, including some of the ones we’ve spent the most money on attempting to control.

We’ve had some successes sure enough; won some ‘battles’ if you will. For example, we’ve eradicated mammals from some offshore islands. But even these need to be placed in perspective. Mammal eradications from islands in New Zealand amount to about 0.2% of our landmass.

If our goal was to beat the enemy then we’ve largely lost, let’s just admit it, some would say quite comprehensively in fact. And given this, maybe it might be sensible to start thinking about whether different approaches might yield better outcomes.

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

Featured image: Former Conservation Minister Maggie Barry…and takahe © Barry Harcourt. Used with permission.

0 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 3 – It’s a war!”

  • 16/12/2018, Jamie objects to a metaphor.

    And in actual substance, Jamie doesn’t believe it will be possible to eradicate any species from the NZ mainland islands – because it hasn’t happened to date. But it has not been tried to date. I tend to agree with Forest and Bird, that PF2050 can be achieved by 2040. My guess is as good as Jamie’s.

    • Yes, I do object to the use of war metaphors in conservation in general. I think that’s clear and well justified. Your other points move into eradication and Predator Free debates best discussed elsewhere.

  • While you may object to the metaphor, it’s one that’s easily understood & very widely used (in health, as well as in conservation). And I suspect that to those on the ground, actually engaged in the conservation effort, it does actually feel like a war.

    • Two rebuttals to this. First, we shouldn’t be prioritising understandability over ethics here. This isn’t a figurative war against, for example, smoking or obesity in which the opposing side is inanimate (in these cases cigarettes and cream buns, respectively). This is a ‘war’ against innocent sentient beings with real ethical consequences. Second, I don’t think we should make too much of the potential hurt feelings of those attached to the metaphor. For me the retirement of a metaphor (with full military honours of course) is as nothing compared to the loss of dignity and truth under the status quo.

  • “Innocent sentient creatures” – would you be happy to share your house with rats?

  • SJB. If Jamie’s house was full of rats he would have a choice to trap or poison. He would make that decision based on his ethics and values. You would brodifacoum your house? Because you believe poison is not harmful in the environment?