The commercialisation of conservation

As the kakapo's conservation funding faces a $200,000 cut, Nikki Macdonald explores the debate about commercialisation of conservation.

Boom! Kakapo recovery programme faces $200,000 cut as sponsor seeks to withdraw after 22 years.

That news was conspicuously absent from the pithy updates regularly boomed and skraaarked by Conservation Department spokesbird Sirocco the kakapo, when cash-strapped New Zealand Aluminium Smelters announced it could no longer afford to support his species.

Surprising, given the randy green night parrot - propelled to international YouTube superstardom by trying to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine's head - is New Zealand's second-most endangered bird.

With a total population of just 125 and a genetic curse requiring intensive breeding management, kakapo need every cent of their $935,556 rescue funds.

But the threatened demise of the country's longest-standing conservation sponsorship raises much broader questions about the risks of DOC's vision for more business partnerships, potentially exposing critical conservation programmes to the mercy of fickle economic cycles.

To understand the gravity of a Kakapo Recovery Programme funding cut, you need to understand the history of one of New Zealand's most quirky birds, and the extraordinary efforts to save it.

Kakapo were once the third most common New Zealand bird - the fluffballs, weighing two to three kilograms, stalked the night from Bluff to Cape Reinga. In 1899, explorer Charlie Douglas found they could be shaken from low scrub like apples. "I have seen as many as a half a dozen kakapos knocked off one tutu bush this way."

Then came stoats, introduced to control rampaging rabbits. Concerned about the bird's rapid decline, forward- thinking conservationist Richard Henry rowed 572 kakapo and kiwi to Resolution Island. He didn't realise stoats were awfully good swimmers. The bird population was exterminated.

By 1974, kakapo were thought to be extinct. Wildlife Service worker Ron Nilsson took an expedition into Fiordland's Esperance Valley to scout for surviving birds. They bush-bashed for a day carrying three weeks' worth of dried mashed spud flakes and other culinary delights. It was September - the first 10 days were fine and then it snowed.

So little was known about kakapo and their curious habits that the team had scant idea what to look for. But in a subalpine garden they found strange feeding signs on a spaniard plant.

A second expedition was launched, with Nilsson's boss and New Zealand bird rescue legend Don Merton, who died last year. The subalpine garden revealed its plump inhabitant, and the team found another bird 300 metres further up the hill. Over the next 12 months they found further evidence of kakapo in the most isolated areas.

"Usually at the top of 3000ft bluffs, with a ledge of forest above them," says Nilsson. "That's where the kakapo were living because that's where they were forced to live. We very quickly became experts at getting in and out of helicopters perched on all sorts of things. I have a mountaineering background and you wouldn't camp there normally, under any circumstances. You were exposed to the wind, exposed to lightning strikes. It was pretty frightening. It was survival really. Survival for the kakapo; survival for the teams involved."

Over four years, the teams found 18 birds - all male. Merton wanted to evacuate them all; the Parks Board allowed him to move only five, including the bird they'd called Richard Henry, who was to become critical to the species' survival.

"That Parks Board decision was enormous - basically throwing them out to the lions to be eaten . . . That one decision almost destroyed a species."

Fortunately, there was more good news. A hunter reported seeing a fat owlish parrot on Stewart Island. Six teams headed there in January 1977. By the second day every team had reported signs of kakapo. "We realised we had a population," Nilsson recalls.

And eventually, they found a female.

For the first time, ornithologists could learn the kakapo's strange habits, including its breeding ritual of booming 10,000 times a night for three months to attract a mate.

But kakapo were far from saved. Nilsson's euphoria quickly dissipated when he realised the birds were being slowly eaten by feral cats. The birds were moved to Little Barrier and Maud Islands while Codfish was cleared of predators.

And that was just the beginning. Because of its isolation, the Stewart Island population was rife with inbreeding, limiting genetic diversity and leading to lower hatching and chick survival rates. By 1995, only 51 remained.

Nests are now intensively managed; dominant birds are moved to give genetically under-represented males a chance to mate; females are fed supplementary feed; chicks are hand- reared. All paid for by the Kakapo Recovery Programme.

To cut its funding would be disastrous, Nilsson says.

"This is an extraordinary animal, there's nothing else like it anywhere. It could really be our national bird if it wasn't for the kiwi - that's how important it is. To stop now would be disastrous."

New Zealand Aluminium Smelters majority owner Rio Tinto began funding kakapo recovery in 1990 and has since contributed $4 million. Its $200,000 annual contribution makes up more than one-fifth of the recovery programme's budget, and is slightly less than the combined operational costs for kakapo recovery on both Codfish and Anchor islands.

In addition, Tiwai Point smelter staff volunteer (about 900 work days since 1990) and provide engineering support.

Despite Rio Tinto last year signing a deal to continue the partnership until 2015, NZAS boss Ryan Cavanagh announced last month that the smelter, which is also shedding 100 jobs, wanted out.

DOC indicated it would fight to continue the partnership and Your Weekend understands discussions are ongoing.

The Kakapo Recovery Plan 2006-2016 cites increasing or maintaining corporate sponsorship as one of its four prime goals. Priority: essential.

Recovery programme manager Deidre Vercoe says a $200,000 budget cut would impact on kakapo recovery.

"That's a reasonable amount of our resources and we would have to adapt our management. We would put quite a lot of emphasis on trying to find other sources of funding."

While kakapo rescue work has been hugely successful, more than doubling the population from 50 to 125, the work is far from over, Vercoe says.

"In theory, we could walk away and kakapo would still be there in 50 years, because they live so long. But it's what we do right now that will determine what health the population will be in in the future . . .

"The genetic diversity is really low. If we left that to go its natural course the negative effects would compound and the hatchability rates would drop. The general health of the population would be compromised - they'd be really vulnerable to disease."

With intensive ongoing management, the number of female kakapo could reach 200 by 2030. With no management, there would be fewer than 80.

Former recovery programme manager Paul Jansen, who worked with kakapo from 1995 to 2006, says Rio Tinto sponsorship was used to accumulate funds for bumper breeding seasons and to fund several research projects at once.

Given much fundamental kakapo research has now been done, a $200,000 cut might not be catastrophic to the programme, Jansen says. However, it does show the risks of business sponsorship.

"When times are tough, conservation is the preserve of the rich. It's not a disaster but I think the thing it says is large corporates are less able to support these activities, or are less inclined currently to do so. And that's got to flag a concern for conservation. It's not the $200,000, it's the trend."

DOC has long been involved with business sponsorship - both Rio Tinto's kakapo sponsorship and Bank of New Zealand's kiwi support date back to the early 1990s.

But the push for corporate conservation partnerships has become more aggressive, in line with DOC director-general Al Morrison's vision that all New Zealanders take responsibility for something that is critical to our economic prosperity.

A commercial business unit was set up in 2010 to increase business sponsorship and the value of commercial activities on DOC land.

Despite the global economic meltdown, the unit last year increased business sponsorship from $2.531 million to $3.293 million - and signed significant new partnerships with Genesis Energy and Air New Zealand.

"We're not sitting here thinking 'Gee, I wish we had some people to talk to', which is really encouraging," says commercial unit boss David Wilks.

Good news, surely? That's certainly how Wilks sees it. How could more money for conservation be a bad thing?

Forest & Bird general manager Mike Britton, who helps oversee the kakapo partnership, agrees conservation sponsorships bring benefits beyond just the dollars. Partnerships help involve the community, and can be used to put pressure on the government to say "you need to deliver your bit as well".

The danger, Britton says, comes with excessive reliance on business support, or the assumption that sponsorship will continue beyond an agreed four or five- year term. While New Zealand has been lucky with long-term commitments from BNZ and Rio Tinto, extended relationships are the exception rather than the rule.

Forest & Bird conservation advocate Nicola Toki is still more circumspect. While government ministers are quick to pose with cuddly kakapo, they're less enthusiastic about funding the department that protects them. With a shrinking DOC (the department took a $54m budget cut in 2009), the worry is that business is expected to plug the gap.

While few would argue against involving business in conservation, it should always be the icing on the cake, rather than replacing core DOC work, Toki says.

"The vulnerability, in terms of our natural heritage that we love so much, is that businesses have to be led by the market. When you have replaced work instead of enhanced work with business input, when they move on you leave a hole. The question is, how do you fill that hole?

"If you've been doing predator control for 20 years and stop, you might as well have never done any."

Conservation, Toki argues, is far too vital to leave to business, and its budget should be increased to reflect that.

Morrison argues the opposite. Conservation, he says, is far too important to be left to the government.

"The natural environment needs to be cared for by everybody. If you start pigeonholing it into something the government alone should do, you are going to be in deep trouble."

The push for more commercial conservation support grew out of a 2005 review that found the Conservation Department was failing to halt biodiversity decline. So the department investigated the cost of reversing the trend - they stopped when the figure exceeded the health budget.

Morrison is adamant he's not advocating less government-funded conservation. Just more conservation. His vision is that businesses, such as Air New Zealand and Genesis, support conservation not because it's a nice touchy-feely thing to do, but because they understand that a healthy environment is critical to their economic success. In which case, they'd be less likely to bail out in tough times.

"What we're trying to get people to understand is that it's voodoo economics to think that you can only have a healthy environment if you've first got a wealthy economy. That dismisses the environment as a discretionary dollar spend, a nice thing to have. It isn't. It's absolutely fundamental."

A pastoral economy based on a clean-green brand ought to be the first to realise that, Morrison says. But we're still a way off that - Rio Tinto obviously considers its contribution dispensable. Solid Energy sponsors whio (blue duck) recovery to the tune of $100,000 a year, as part of its pledge to balance out mining's environmental damage. But it is also reviewing its support as tight times bite.

Genesis last year signed a $2.5m whio support partnership, recognising that the species' survival and health are a good indicator of how well the company looks after the rivers it uses to generate hydro power. The company has also worked with DOC to launch a whio awareness month, and funded 30-second television ads. It's a smarter investment than putting Genesis on a rugby shirt, says public affairs manager Richard Gordon. But, he says, it's too early to say if Genesis will continue its sponsorship beyond the five-year term.

The risk of putting all your eggs in one nest has not escaped BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust executive director Michelle Impey. The trust, which last year lost two major sponsorships - Nestle and TVNZ, is looking to build a family of supporters, so that such withdrawals are not so dire.

Despite the risks, Impey argues the support of a large company such as BNZ has benefits far beyond the money, in terms of promoting the cause to its thousands of customers.

Morrison admits the strategy is risky, but doesn't resile from that.

"We'll make some big mistakes along the way but if we're not prepared to make mistakes and learn from them, then we won't get anywhere. If we're scared of failure, we will just be with the status quo, and that means conservation will be shrinking. And I'm not prepared to sit back and entertain that."

While the commercialisation of conservation debate continues, the kakapo recovery team is gearing up for the breeding season. With 18 per cent of Codfish's all-important rimu trees showing signs of fruiting, the team is expecting up to 15 chicks.

Their survival, and that of the recovery programme, will depend on the prevailing climate.

There is much yet to do. Another couple of bumper breeding seasons would strain the capacity of Codfish - if this year's relocation of eight birds to Little Barrier is successful, that could become an alternative kakapo sanctuary.

Then there's the artificial insemination programme, which will be again facilitated this year by Juan Blanco, the Spanish bird whisperer. And there's some optimism that the sons of Richard Henry - the only survivors of the Fiordland line and the population's best hope of genetic rescue - might mate successfully for the first time this year.

Whatever happens with Rio Tinto's kakapo sponsorship, the conservation of our special species should be non- negotiable.

As the late Don Merton said: "They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don't have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder but what we do have is something that is far, far older. No-one else has kiwi, no-one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it's up to us to make sure they never die out."

The Dominion Post