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Published 7 November 2019

Seeing ourselves as part of the natural world is the key to saving it

A new special issue 'The state of conservation in New Zealand’ edited by David Towns and Charles Daugherty presents a wide-ranging overview of conservation management. In this article they give an introduction to the special issue.

"In 1887, Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi (tribe), gave a modest amount of land in the North Island of New Zealand to the Crown.  This land became Tongariro National Park—the first national park of New Zealand, one of the first in the world, and a proud landmark in our conservation history.

Subsequent history offers a mixed view, however.  Even as this gift was being accepted, the government was unleashing a new destructive force on native wildlife — stoats, weasels and ferrets — that would become one of the world’s most misdirected attempts at biological control.  Further, for over a century, an Eurocentric utilitarian philosophy underpinned management of Tongariro and other national parks, often with minimal or no involvement of Māori.

A century later, the Department of Conservation was launched in a bold, revolutionary attempt to undo degradation of New Zealand biodiversity and landscapes.  With a first-ever comprehensive brief to “manage for conservation purposes” all land and natural and historic resources held by the Crown, hopes were high that the ongoing extinction of indigenous species might be halted, even reversed.  The Conservation Act (1987) also required the Department “to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi,” a very different role for Māori than had prevailed for over a century.

Have those hopes been met?  Has the Department of Conservation held the line against the many threats to indigenous biodiversity?  Is the future safer for our native species - or not?  If not, why not?  And what about the role of Māori and Māori values?"

More about the special issue

The special issue opens with a history of the establishment and development of the Department of Conservation by David Towns and colleagues, who explore attitudes, legislative reform, and philanthropic support during the past 30 years.  They ask what the future holds, and note that the urgency for action to save indigenous biodiversity is as great, if not greater, than 30 years ago.

Daniel Simberloff provides an international view of New Zealand conservation history and practice, which is followed by a review of notable successes in reversing the decline of focal species (Nicola Nelson and colleagues).  These are contrasted with examples of taxa intractably resistant to conservation actions (Kelly Hare and colleagues).  Three papers review advancements in key technologies and management practices — conservation genetics (Graham Wallis), urban forest restoration ecology (Kiri Wallace and Bruce Clarkson), and ecosanctuaries (John Innes and colleagues).  Two papers examine specific challenges immediately confronting New Zealand conservation practice: the role and value of biocultural approaches (Phil Lyver and colleagues) and making the country predator free by 2050 (Duane Peltzer and colleagues).

In a concluding editorial, Charles Daugherty and David Towns observe that the concept of “legal personality” for a landscape now enshrined in the 2015 Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act may offer guidance to a better future for all environmental management in New Zealand.  Rather than treating nature as a commodity belonging to humans, the Act treats the Whanganui River catchment and its people as an integrated community deserving respect.

This relationship based on respect is not new to western science. The eminent American ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote 70 years ago that humans abuse land when “we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” but that we come to “use it with love and respect” when we see it “as a community to which we belong.”  Daugherty and Towns give three international examples of communities that exemplify those values and then ask what are the limits?  Ecologically, all of New Zealand is best understood as a single ecosystem doesn’t every square metre of the community to which all New Zealanders belong, our home that nurtures human life, deserve the respect we accord our fellow citizens?  Accepting those values implies that all of New Zealand could be a National Park - why not?

This special issue 'The state of conservation in New Zealand' published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealandis available to read in full at Taylor & Francis online.