By Jamie Steer 22/12/2018

This is this idea that we either do this or something that we love dies – what might be referred to as ‘conservation at the barrel of a gun’.

Here’s another collection of quotes from the feedback to Kim Hill again – the last one most notably being from one of New Zealand’s foremost conservation biologists:

‘By accepting many introduced species we also have to accept the loss of many of our unique native species’

‘…if we accept the presence of introduced predators like rats, stoats, and possums, then we must say goodbye to NZ native birds, bats, lizards’

‘The choice is simple – we save our most distinctive and valued species, OR we feed them to rats, stoats, etc’

But is all this hyperbole really true? I don’t think so. No, we can actually preserve most of our more iconic species in much smaller areas than they used to inhabit as we have very successful shown in many offshore and mainland island settings already.

I do also recognise the retort to that, however, which is that we’re not going to be able to keep all our native biodiversity as it was 800 years ago. And this is a point where I’d have to agree actually.

Sure, we probably aren’t going to be able to keep everything as it was in the past and, yes, this is going to involve extinctions. But I think we also need to be talking more about the notion of extinction itself and what it actually means today, because, while ‘extinction’ is a really dirty word in conservation, it’s also an important part of evolution.

Is change permissible?

Palaeontologists, of course, remind us that most of the species that have ever lived are now extinct, so extinction is in many ways just a fact of life. But people don’t take issue with extinction I’m told, just with human-induced extinction; with faster rates than the background ‘natural’ rate (whatever that is). So it’s fundamentally about our unease with causing it rather than the notion of extinction itself.

Maybe that’s understandable, but in order for ecosystems to adapt to changed conditions there needs to be a degree of extinction on many levels – whether it be genes, varieties, species or ecosystems.

The idea that humanity could change and expand on such unprecedented levels but that a human-exclusive nature itself could, concurrently, remain static, or even relatively static, reflects a potential naiveté in restoration thinking. Further, the notion that the rate of change in nature can be agreeably manipulated, where necessary, by humans also hints at a kind of arrogance.

Maybe our ecosystems are going to need to change now and, yes, maybe that change is going to involve some extinctions. Maybe as we come to realise how little of our ecosystems are completely within our control we may have to become clearer about which species we’re saving and why those species. Most of our conservation work in New Zealand involves saving birds and yet they are probably one of the more minor components of our biodiversity.

At present we’re often just blinding pushing on under the understanding that we need to save everything and keep everything as it was in the past. It’s like we have this big sign up all the time that reads ‘No Extinctions Allowed’. Change? Sure, we’ll allow change. But extinction? No, unacceptable.

I think there seems to be too little self-reflection there both on our enormous technical limitations and on the fact that some degree of extinction is in many ways now necessary for our ecosystems to adapt to the changed conditions we have brought about.

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

Featured image: Invasives must go! © Cartoon Movement. Used with permission.

0 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Belief 9 – We have to do it”

  • One thing that I have wondered about for a long while, Jamie, is what you think of people who actually want endemic species that are currently rare to eventually occupy most of the range that they occupied in the past? Like people who want stitchbirds, blue-wattled crows, and North Island saddlebacks to be a common sight in forests and large gardens of all kinds throughout the North Island, for example? I currently imagine that if you were approached by someone with this question in person, your answer would be; ‘Oh, well. Just learn to love dunnocks, magpies, and starlings, I guess?’.
    New Zealand has already had plenty of human-induced species extinctions. How many more will need to occur until New Zealand’s ecosystems have the species composition that you dream of?


  • Recently it was reported that there are no warblers, fantails or waxeyes in Zelandia, the abundance of tui and tieke have driven them out. No warblers means no shining cuckoo no shinning cuckoo means what??
    That’s just one unknown equation.
    Apparently it’s not about biodiversity now it’s about “winners and losers”.
    The more you interfere the more unforeseen the consequences.
    Where I live in a rural landscape with farmland, a pond and a small patch of bush, there are 38 bird species and all the other wild animals: rabbits, possums, wallabies, hedgehogs, rats and wild cats. It doesn’t have kokako etc because there’s no habitat.
    I wouldn’t want to see anything killed off to make way for them. That would be illogical thinking. Unfortunately “illogics” rules the roost in NZ science thinking. Arrogance and ignorance are a dangerous combination we must grow out of.
    Everything in nature gives, only humans think they can take: lives and resources with impunity.
    Extinction is not a bad thing it’s the ultimate gift to the life that follows.
    Keep writing Jamie, than you.

  • I don’t know where you heard that about Zealandia, Andy, but it’s rubbish. I have seen both fantails and grey warblers there this year. I have not seen any silvereyes there, but surely there are some present, and they aren’t an endemic species in any case (some even think that they may have only colonised New Zealand by hitching rides on boats, which would make them an introduced species).
    Subfossil evidence shows that the blue-wattled crow was actually primarily a species of coastal habitats in the past. People just assume that they can only survive in large forests because most of them exist in that habitat now. There’s no telling how abundant they could become if there weren’t any rats, mustelids, or possums around.
    How is getting rid of pests to make way for rare endemic species ‘illogical’, exactly? Do you think it would make more sense to release rare endemic species into pest-infested habitats and just hope that they hang in there?


  • It was reported in the media and was a statement issued by Zelandia itself. I couldn’t make it up. The main message was there’s “winners and losers” now. The Sands have shifted. The wind suddenly gusts from a new direction. Not everything can be “saved” equally it seems.
    It’s all such a nonsense. Zoolandia where supplementary feeding determines species content.
    The one lesson to take from it is;if you want birds to increase, be it kaka or tui, give them food. Something that is often lacking in the nutrient low ecosystems of NZ.

  • “Changes in the forest bird community of an urban sanctuary in response to pest mammal eradications and endemic bird reintroductions”. Miskelly, CM, Notornis 65:3 p132. I can’t read the article (no public access till next year) but AFAIK it doesn’t say fantails have disappeared, just decreased in number.