In an era of mass extinction, who decides which species to save – and how?

A kererū bird in Tiritiri Matangi island sanctuary, New Zealand. Larry Koester
22 May 2019

This topic will be explored at the Global Landscapes Forum Bonn 2019 on 2223 June. Register to attend or tune-in digitally here.

Wednesday, 22 May, is the International Day for Biological Diversity, and following the damning IPBES report stating that a million species are at risk of extinction, the cause of protecting the variety of life on Earth seems more pressing than ever.

In the absence of infinite time and resources, the hard truth is that prioritization must come into play, and the decisions made about where to focus attention are never neutral. A disproportionate amount of conservation efforts to date have focused on “charismatic megafauna” – well-known, popular species like dolphins, elephants and orangutans – as opposed to other species that are less glamorous but equally important to Earth’s ecosystems, such as bees, frogs and earthworms.

Often, too, priorities at national and international levels can be at odds with those of local and Indigenous communities. For example, in Aotearoa New Zealand (A/NZ), kiwi conservation is often privileged since the bird is a well-known national icon and identity marker (many New Zealanders proudly refer to themselves as “kiwis”). But some indigenous Māori tribes have quite different priorities. For example, the Tūhoe people of the Te Urewera region prize the kererū bird as a valuable food source and indicator of forest wellbeing and have recently gained the right to manage their forest homeland of Te Urewera and make kererū population restoration a priority.

An alpine meadow in Kahurangi National Park, home to a number of rare bird species. Monica Evans

METHODS FOR THE MADNESS

Another challenge for biodiversity conservation is deciding what methods to use to preserve the prioritized species. With 60 percent of global extinctions caused by introduced predators, a good deal of conservation work involves eradicating those animals from defined areas. The methods chosen to do that can be quite controversial.

In A/NZ, pest control is perhaps a bigger part of conservation practice than elsewhere, due to its unique geography, ecology and history. Before humans arrived to this remote collection of islands in the chillier corner of the South Pacific, birds ruled the roost. Avian species filled almost all the niches normally occupied by mammals; the only land mammal around was an unassuming bat. Without the need to escape from mammalian predators, many bird species lost the ability to fly.

When Māori arrived on the islands around 800 years ago, accompanied by dogs and rats that could easily catch and kill the flightless bird species, the impact was immense. And when British colonizers came in the 1800s and onward – bringing other pests like stoats, ferrets, various rat species, deer, goats, pigs and possums – things went further downhill.

Today, over 40 percent of the country’s terrestrial bird species are extinct, and 35 percent of those that remain are at risk or threatened – the highest proportion in the world.

A kiwi in Queenstown, New Zealand. Larry Koester

These days, many of the country’s endemic birds survive only on offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries where introduced predators have been eradicated. But in 2016, the national government announced an ambitious target to make the entire country free of all marsupial and mammalian introduced predators by 2050.

Some of the methods they’re using to make this happen, like trapping and hunting, are relatively uncontroversial. But it’s become clear that the project will require a serious step up from ‘business-as-usual’ pest control, and new methods will be required.

Here, things get more complex. Aerial poisoning, for example, is advantageous for killing possums because it can cover a large area of rugged, remote terrain relatively quickly and cheaply. However, some groups are opposed to it, including a good number of rural Māori, who claim that “going bush” to hunt introduced species is a crucial way of connecting with their forest – as well as an important element of their livelihoods.

While effective, efficient pest control might seem like a no-brainer, rolling out approaches that reduce Māori engagement with the environment has been shown to negatively impact biodiversity. This has been mirrored in indigenous communities in many parts of the world.

New technologies like gene editing are also being considered. These techniques can alter the sex determination pathway of invasive species – for example, by making all future offspring male and unable to reproduce. It’s low-cost, targeted and requires no killing or poisons that could impact on other species. But with possums an endangered species just across the Tasman Sea in Australia, there are major risks of potentially obliterating an entire population.

In A/NZ, there is also widespread resistance to any form of genetic modification, and the current government has ruled against gene editing.

Ngarunui Beach near the North Island’s Wainui Reserve Bush Park is an important habitat for sea and shore birds. Monica Evans

“IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE”

Many scientists hold, however, that the country’s progress towards the lofty Predator-Free 2050 (PF2050) goal will be determined not by the technology that’s available but by how well local communities are engaged and included in the process. “Only 20 percent of this is about the technology; 80 percent is about the people,” said Campbell Leckie of the Hawkes Bay regional council at a symposium in Wellington, New Zealand, on 21 May. “It’ll become a reality only if we get the people part of the picture right.”

In that sense, the existence of the nation-wide goal itself seems extremely important. “New Zealanders are more engaged in environmental protection than at any point in our recent history,” said A/NZ’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton.

“People want to know they’re part of something, and that they’re being watched by the world,” added businessman and environmentalist Rob Fenwick. “It shows just how powerful community conservation can be when it’s clustered around something bigger,” which rings as a lesson for combatting extinction worldwide.



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