Debunking the native wildlife myths

22:48, Feb 21 2013

It's been a while since I've had a rant about things that get my goat (or should that be stoat?), so here's my list of constantly spouted nature myths I get bombarded with that make my blood boil.

'All our wildlife is really boring'
I hear this statement from time to time and it really frustrates me. However, I think that saying "but all our wildlife is really boring" is based around a population that mostly lives in cities and towns (86 per cent of us are now townies) and hasn't actually had a lot of up close and personal experiences with our native wildlife. 

Add to that the fact that much of our wildlife is now driven to refugee status on predator-proof islands or deep in parks or sanctuaries and you have a recipe for a people disconnected from their own ecology. A generation whose entire nature experience is based on watching lions kill wildebeest on Animal Planet has probably created a different level of expectation for what wildlife "should" look like as well.

I still can't believe how many people in Auckland haven't visited Tiritiri Matangi Island  (but who will happily head off to the Pacific Islands or the Gold Coast). Tiritiri Matangi is one of those amazing open nature sanctuaries where for very little effort you can find yourself face to face with a takahe, kokako or even a tuatara.

At first glance, it is easy to make the sweeping generalisation that with mostly brown, green and olive feathers, scales or skin - our wildlife might not compare to more colourful characters such as toucans, or perhaps baboons, but to that I say, take a closer look...

A tui might easily be described as a black bird with white feathers on its throat, but does that truly or aptly illustrate the shimmering purple, green, black and blue iridescence it displays? Have you noticed the shining palette of colours when you've seen a tui?


These takahe feathers are a stunning example of colour in our native wildlife.  (Photo: Helliwell family.)

A takahe might appear as just a bigger, fatter version of a pukeko, but does this give the deep blues and greens of its feathers justice? The contrast of the takahe's feathers and crimson beak and feet is just as eye-catching as a toucan or a baboon, in my view.

'It's all fine out there in the bush'
This one worries me. When I used to work for DOC, the government would commission surveys about people's perceptions of what we did (for the record, DOC always rated in the top three government departments for levels of satisfaction). Sometimes, to get deeper into the issues, the survey company would hold "focus groups" to determine what people really thought about particular issues.

For one of these focus groups the guy running the group said to the people in the room "What if I came in today and said to you that in areas where there is no pest control, 95 per cent of kiwi chicks don't survive to one year old?" - It wasn't that stat that was the most concerning (though it is obviously a terrible statistic!), it was the reaction of the people in the room. Everybody in the focus group ridiculed that idea, said that kiwi were doing fine, that DOC was looking after them and that essentially we had nothing to worry about. Sadly, the focus group leader was correct in his assertion. We do lose 95 per cent of kiwi chicks where pest control isn't done. The truth is that sustained pest control is carried out (by DOC) on only 12 per cent of our public conservation land. You do the maths regarding what that means for species such as kiwi.

It's not "all fine" out there, but don't lose heart, it's not hopeless either - where people are making an effort, they are making an enormous difference.

'Our wildlife has reached a "balance" with introduced predators'
ooooOOOOO this one drives me crazy. There are some people who believe that now that stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, cats, dogs, pigs, possums (and the rest!) have been here for a century or so, they have reached some kind of "equilibrium" with our native wildlife out there in the wilderness. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Let's just put this in perspective. This country was once bursting with kiwi, kakapo, tuatara, seabirds (e.g. sooty shearwaters or muttonbirds), native lizards, giant weta, huia, tiny wrens, moa - you get the picture.  After people and their pests arrived, much of the native wildlife began the inevitable slide toward extinction. Some species achieved that goal pretty quickly, others have taken longer and are still hanging on to the edge of survival. But at no point, after 80 million years of evolution in isolation, did the native wildlife have the time or opportunity to adapt enough to the presence of introduced mammalian predators. 

Tuatara once roamed throughout the country, but their disappearance from mainland New Zealand coincides exactly with the introduction of kiore. Kakapo were once plentiful (the third most common bird fossil to be found), but were decimated after the arrival of rats, mustelids and cats. Early European explorers talked about being able to "shake them out of the trees like apples", but within a few short years of stoats and ferrets being liberated near Richard Henry's residence at the head of Lake Te Anau, the kakapo and kiwi had disappeared.

This ship rat in a bird's nest is caught in the act. But remember, this is just one picture, one nest, one tree in one forest. (Photo: Nga Manu images.) 

'The "forest is silent" because of 1080"
Despite a "deafening" dawn chorus when Captain Cook arrived at our shores, these days that din is rather muted. Some of New Zealand's forests are quieter than others. Some have had the wildlife sucked right out of them, but it's certainly not the use of 1080 that has caused this. Sadly, "1080" has become a dirty word to some and a number of people have concerns that if they don't hear the birds in an area, it "must be" because of 1080.

The truth is that predators are destroying our natural heritage - silently, stealthily, every night in our forests, lowlands, wetlands and rivers. The most dangerous predators are the mammals. New Zealand is the "land without teeth", with no native mammals (except for two tiny species of bat, both of which get killed by cats, rats and stoats). The compound sodium fluoroacetate is a very effective killer of mammals. New Zealand, without native terrestrial mammals like bears, lions or tigers, is perfectly placed to use a biodegradable toxin that targets mammals and breaks down in water. Incidentally, most of the pest control in the country is carried out by ground control.

There isn't enough room in this blog to explain how the debate about 1080 arose and where the misinformation comes from, so if you are unsure and you want to know more - the very best thing you could do is to read the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's easy-to-read report on the use of 1080 in New Zealand. At the very least, read the first four pages of it - she came to her own independent conclusions, based on hard scientific evidence.

The 1080 debate is something that I have been involved with for 10 years, in roles with the Department of Conservation, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and the Animal Health Board - all of which support the careful use of 1080 to protect our native wildlife and multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.  When you have groups as disparate as Forest and Bird and Federated Farmers collaborating to get the truth out about the use of 1080, it's worth thinking about.

Here's Forest & Bird's clever little video on what is happening in our forests - thought provoking stuff.


'It's not [insert industry impact here], it's all the other things'
Distractionary tactics abound in New Zealand when it comes to conservation. It's not overfishing that's harming our fish stocks, it's sediment runoff from the land. It's not the squid fishery that's causing the decline in New Zealand sea lions, it's disease outbreaks... the list goes on. My stance on this is simple. If you conduct an activity that harms a native species (or has the potential to), then all the other things aren't a reason for you not to be responsible for your part. It doesn't help our environment or ultimately our own health to turn a blind eye to environmental degradation by finger-pointing at the other possibilities without fronting up to your part of the equation.

What about you guys? Are there particular refrains about our native wildlife that drive you crazy? What are they? I'd love to hear your thoughts on these.

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