Island life: community-led #conservation in a #biodiversity crisis

Flying over the broad sweep of beach into the local airport

It’s easy to imagine it can’t really be all that bad for biodiversity when you travel to places like Aotea / Great Barrier Island. The 285km2 island lies just 90km from downtown Auckland. About half of the island is Conservation Park, mostly cloaked in dense scrub with pockets of remnant mature forest. I had the opportunity to travel there recently to present a small workshop on an Ecological Monitoring Guide for Community Groups.

With a new group starting up in the Medlands Beach area, the guide (described in earlier posts here and here) will help integrate monitoring into their proposed restoration project and establish ecological baselines. Often, where community environmental groups have developed monitoring programmes for their restoration projects, flora, fauna and general habitat baseline data are largely non-existent. That’s extrapolated from my research into community environmental groups completed a few years ago, and the many, many conversations I’ve had with groups over the years.

Activity monitoring (e.g., logging predator trap catches) has increased – user-friendly apps enable data to be uploaded both on- and offline (e.g., Trap.NZ). Outcome monitoring (i.e. measuring the results of restoration actions such as planting and predator/pest control) remains challenging – it’s generally more technical. The guide, however, does include a basic suite of outcome monitoring methods to help groups quantify biodiversity gains from on-ground activities.

We know (so, so well) what the problems are…

Countrywide, we know our biodiversity on land and in our oceans continues to decline. Problems are very well-known but practical solutions are largely decoupled from current political and economic timeframes. However, long-term, large-scale ‘wicked’ problems don’t suit our short-term cycles for local, regional and national elections. Shifting entrenched paradigms of top-down management to collaborative models also takes time – having people both at the coal-face and in senior positions with the right skills and critically, mindsets.

Kahikatea fruiting during the 2019 mega-mast of podocarp and beech species

In the latest report on how New Zealand is tracking against national and global biodiversity targets, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage doesn’t mince words about the biodiversity crisis:

…land use changes and introduced predators and pests continue to threaten our most precious ecosystems, native plants and wildlife. More than 4,000 of New Zealand’s native plant and wildlife species are threatened or at risk of extinction and more needs to be done…

It may seem surprising that a large swathe of NZ’ers still consider the state and management of our environment to be ‘good’ (and better than in other developed countries). The findings of the 2016 Hughey et al. report highlight the disjunct between science and perception: the state of terrestrial systems (native bush and forests) as well as air, was rated highest by survey respondents. On the other hand, the state of aquatic systems (rivers, lakes and marine fisheries) were rated as worst with agriculture still perceived as playing a major role in environmental declines. Comfortingly, a Department of Conservation report of the same year shows that most NZ’ers regard conservation as important and can identify at least one personal benefit from it e.g., experiencing the native bush / forests, animals and bird life.

Why islands are important

In the meantime, a desktop study shows that by focusing conservation effort on islands, we can save a disproportionate number of species compared to the mainland. The researchers found that by eradicating invasive mammals on 107 islands around the globe, 80 threatened species would be protected. Importantly, feasibility was also assessed from a political and socio-economic perspective. The NZ islands identified in the study differ widely in scale, location, ecology and demographic factors: Great Barrier / Aotea; Auckland – the largest of our stunning sub-Antarctic islands but where pigs, cats and mice range freely; Kawau in the Hauraki Gulf where wallabies introduced by Governor Grey have reached plague numbers; Motukawanui Island in Northland and the privately-owned Slipper Island in Coromandel. The total area of these islands is c.820 km2 – 0.3% of the North and South Islands, Rakiura / Stewart and Rekohu / Chatham Islands combined.

Captive at Willowbank reserve.

Back to Aotea

With around 1000 permanent residents, numbers on Aotea swell five-fold over the summer months. Few have the time or resources to volunteer and existing volunteers already wear many hats. Although supporting island conservation is difficult (let alone achieving social license e.g., for controlling predators or strengthening landscape protection through legal instruments), it’s not impossible. The island has 3 sanctuary projects (Windy Hill, Glenfern, and Motu Kaikoura) that together trap pests over 1500ha among other ecological restoration activities.

As an advocate for community conservation, I will continue to promote grassroots initiatives. Although we can’t measure gains made by these groups for biodiversity regionally let alone nationally, without them, biodiversity – and our communities, would be in a poorer state. Simply put, they do valuable work, that otherwise would not be done and in doing so contribute to the environment and the social fabric of the communities that live in them.

Further reading

Hughey, K.F.D., Kerr, G.N. and Cullen, R. 2016. Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment: 2016. EOS Ecology, Christchurch. vi+82 pp. ISSN 2230-4967.

Since 2011 the Department of Conservation has undertaken an annual national survey of New Zealanders about their attitudes towards, understanding of and participation in conservation activities and visitation of DOC-administered parks and places.

Jones, Holly P., et al. 2016. Invasive mammal eradication on islands results in substantial conservation gains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(15): 4033-4038

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