What is so great about native species?
Tuatara, Stephens Island
Many of New Zealand's plants and animals are endemic (found nowhere else in the world). Apart from bats and marine mammals (such as seals), New Zealand has no native mammals! We do have lots of unique native fish, insects, plants, birds, lizards and frogs. New Zealand has no snakes.
We boast the world's only flightless parrot (the kakapo), and a bird with nostrils at the end of its beak (the kiwi), also flightless. Safe from predatory mammals, birds ran free on the ground and several species lost the use of their wings. A host of other animals have retained their ancient forms. Wingless crickets, known as weta, grew to take the place of mice in the food chain as they foraged on the forest floor, and a primitive frog bears live young
New Zealand has species which are relics from ancient times, for example tuatara, rimu trees and lycopodium (a scrambling, moss-like plant).
Native species evolved in the absence of predators such as rats and stoats. Herbivores such as goats and possums were also absent. As a result, native species developed strange characteristics such as flightlessness (for example takahe and kiwi), gigantism (for example the giant weta is as large as a mouse) and some species became long-lived and slow breeding (for example kakapo and tuatara).
Threats to species
Loss of habitat through land clearance for farming, fire, weeds (for example old man's beard) and possums has made many native species struggle for survival.
Pests such as wild cats, stoats, rats and mice eat native insects, lizards and birds. Mice and rats also compete with native species for food by eating seeds and insects. Possums and deer destroy habitats. All these pests are widespread on the New Zealand mainland.
Changes to New Zealand's landscape since human colonisation resulted in the extinction of more than 50 species. Several hundred of the remaining species are threatened with extinction in the next 50 years.
The Department's role in species management
The Department of Conservation administers 30% of New Zealand's land area in a series of protected areas, reserves and national parks. The Department also manages protected native species under the Wildlife Act 1953 and is responsible for these species no matter where they are found, on private or conservation lands.
The Department works with interest and specialist groups (such as the Ornithological Society of NZ, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and zoos) as well as private landowners to ensure the survival of New Zealand's native flora and fauna and the habitats they are part of. Conservation management includes:
- habitat protection;
- ongoing predator control programmes;
- moving species to safer locations;
- survey and research to improve our understanding of a species or its habitat, and the pests that threaten it.
What do we save first?
The Department has developed a classification system that lists New Zealand species according to their threat of extinction. The NZ Threat Classification system was revised in 2008. Whilst not a priority-setting system, the threat status of species is taken into account in the decision-making process around management of species.
The NZ Threat Classification System is made up of manuals and corresponding threatened taxa status Lists. The Lists are evaluated on a three year cycle. There are seven categories of threatened taxa, with the most seriously threatened species falling into “Nationally Critical” e.g. shore plover, “Nationally Endangered” e.g. black-billed gull, and “Nationally Vulnerable” e.g wrybill.
New Zealand Threat Classification System
Department of Conservation projects for species
Offshore island projects also protect species by introducing or reintroducing species, and removing pests to create pest-free havens for native species and habitats.
A new technique being developed by the Department is known as "mainland islands". Mainland islands are based on the idea that all living things thrive best in their natural habitats. Introduced predators are intensively managed in areas of mainland habitat to restore the natural ecological processes of the area. While threatened species benefit from the intensive management, so do more lowly parts of the ecosystem such as fungi.
Some of the more threatened species, such as kiwi, have recovery plans to guide intensive management activities over a number of years.
Department projects include such things as:
- finding and counting short-tailed bats on Stewart Island using a "bat box" which detects the sonic call of the bat;
- fencing kauri snail habitat to prevent trampling by cattle;
- removing kiwi eggs from nests in Okarito forest, West Coast, for incubating and raising the chicks to a size where they can fight off predators such as stoats and rats, so they can be released back into the forest;
In addition to species and island projects, the Department promotes care of native habitats and species to local councils and landowners. Many habitat restoration projects have relied on involvement of local communities for their success.
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