Wildlife Protection in Ancient Islands: New Zealand
Conservation in New Zealand – In its last remaining patches of intact forest and miles of pristine coastline, the remote islands of New Zealand shelter some of the animal kingdom’s most bizarre and endangered species as well as inspiring stories of conservation efforts. Conservation challenges here are different from many other nations, especially since this landmass has been isolated for millions of years and allowed unique habitats and species to evolve.
Wildlife Threats – Since its wildlife has evolved into highly adapted species, they have slow reproductive rates and small ecological niches, which makes them particularly vulnerable to new threats. For this reason, vast areas of suitable habitat with no introduced predators and protected by passionate people are necessary to save wildlife. We visited several successful habitat protection projects across the nation, from endangered species conservation and pest eradication on Stewart Island to the base of Operation Nest-Egg, which is working to save the kiwi from extinction on the North Island.
The Kiwi’s Story – The kiwi bird’s Operation Nest-Egg program provides the best example of endangered species and conservation efforts. The chicken-sized, flightless kiwi lays an egg a third of its body mass (the largest egg to body mass ratio of any bird) and forages among the forest’s undergrowth for insects. It is ecologically unique among the animal kingdom, and nearly every kiwi bird characteristic is not shared with any other bird species. The kiwi’s uniqueness has led to its vulnerability and subsequent demise, since it had no defense for introduced predators like stoats and cats. Due to these predators, the birds decline by around 2% every year and are now facing extinction.
Operation Nest-Egg – Operation Nest-Egg is working to reverse this downward trend. The project began as a way to increase the survival rate of newly hatched kiwi chicks, which were being decimated by introduced predators. To solve the issues of predation on kiwis, the project enlisted many volunteers who track adult kiwis and collect eggs whenever they are laid. The volunteers transport the eggs to hatcheries dotted throughout New Zealand, where the eggs are incubated and hatched in a safe and secure environment. Once they have reached a size where they will not be eaten by most predators, the chicks are relocated to a safe sanctuary where they can thrive and reproduce.
Before Conservation – Before Operation Nest-Egg commenced, nearly 10% of chicks survived to adulthood, and now, more than 95% of them that are born in hatcheries survive to adulthood. This project could save this bird from extinction and set an example for projects across the globe for vulnerable species. Countless lessons regarding length of incubation, eventual release, and continued monitoring can now be applied to other endangered species.
Hatcheries – We visited one of these hatcheries in the North Island and observed a young chick that was just about to be released. To see a chick that modeled the project’s ultimate goal demonstrated Operation Nest-Egg’s success with saving the kiwi and gave me hope that the species will survive.
Stewart Island – Although the kiwi has been decimated by invasive predators on both the North and South Islands of New Zealand, the bird has one last stronghold on Stewart Island, where it has had enough space to thrive and fewer predators to keep the population of more than 25,000 stable. Dogs working to save wildlife in different ways have also helped protect the kiwis and their habitat.
Conservation Dogs – The conservation dogs are spread throughout New Zealand and serve many different purposes. Some track down pests like mustelids, cats, and rodents that hunt kiwis, while other dogs search for critically endangered bird species in the wild like the takahe and kakapo.
Detective Gadget – We met Detective Gadget, a rodent-searching dog based out of Stewart Island, with her owner. This dog tracks down invasive pests and checks boats docking on the port for any rodents. She demonstrated her effectiveness in species protection on a walk in one of Stewart Island’s forests. On our walk, she could easily pick out rodents and even found a rat hidden in a nearby helicopter hanger. It was fascinating to see a member of another species helping to protect an endangered species, even if she was unaware of her impact.
The Search for the Kiwi – For the wild kiwi mission, we traveled to a forest edge near the Stewart Island’s coast. It was misty from hours of heavy rain, and thick clouds obscured the stars, which added to the ominous darkness of the forest. A guide put on a dim red flashlight and slowly moved it through the undergrowth to check for the odd, brown-shaped kiwi. It did not take very long before the light revealed a kiwi. Since it was young and frightened, it awkwardly sprinted away. After the first timid kiwi, more and more wandered away from the trees and were revealed by the light.
An Encounter – I wanted to get closer to a kiwi feeding on insects, so I slowly crawled forward through the marsh on my stomach. It took five minutes of extremely careful movements to get within touching distance of the kiwi. I finally got completely still and waited for something to happen. The kiwi clearly did not feel threatened and continued inching towards me. Eventually, it got so close that it touched its beak against the front of the camera before darting away with surprising speed.
Fiordland National Park – Following the experiences in Stewart Island, we continued northwards to a different part of the South Island. Here, in the national park known as Fiordland, magnificent glacial peaks and thundering seas surround beautiful coastal forests and massive rocky beaches.
Saved From the Brink – For me, the most Fjordland resident was the New Zealand fur seal. When protections were finally enforced to save the fur seal in the late 1800s, it was saved from the brink. The seal had been decimated by European sealers who sought the soft, water-resistant pelt for sale in Europe. These sealers remained unchecked for centuries and greedily wiped out hundreds of thousands of seals for their pelts. After conservationists enforced protections, the population had a drastic, exponential recovery and is now estimated at a total of 200,000 individuals.
Fur Seals – Travelling by helicopter, we landed adjacent to a large seal colony in the northern part of Fjordland, where thousands of young pups were learning to swim. The pups’ mothers had fed in the high seas all day, and the pups waited patiently for them to return by mastering their underwater acrobatics in sheltered rocky pools.
Seal Swimming Pool – I climbed the huge rocks which the seals use for shelter and slowly made my way across the rocky terrain to get a closer look at the “seal swimming pool”. I sat down on the pool’s edge watching their playfulness and interactions with each other. The seals would do endless underwater flips and take breaks by resting on the surface. They were not at all bothered by my presence, and besides a few mysterious looks, they barely even noticed I was there. They still kept their distance, however, and I wasn’t able to get a close up picture.
Getting Close – So, as I did with the gentoo penguins in the Falklands, I set a camera down on a spot frequented by the seals, pressed play for a video, and hid behind a nearby log. It did not take long for them to become inquisitive, and soon they began to come and touch their noses to the phone. The young seals even got so intrigued by the device that they went from behind and shoved it off a rock onto the ground. Then, one fur seal pushed a small rock right on the phone and sat on it.
A curious seal moves in for the first time:
Seals begin touching the camera with the nose:
A Newfound Intelligence – I returned to check on the camera and found the young seal having a nice nap on top of my phone. Once the seal noticed that I was nearby, it hobbled back to the sea. It was incredible to watch the footage on the now fish-smelling phone because I could watch their curiosity and intellect unfold. Clearly, there is more going on inside their brains than we could possibly imagine.
More and more seals come past:
Another Example – Watch this video to see another example of this intelligence. The University of California in Santa Cruz has discovered that the sea lion can hold an exact beat, which proves that he must be able to recognize a pattern in a continuous sound and display a movement that aligns perfectly with the sound pattern.
Keep Biodiversity Thriving – New Zealand’s uniqueness comes not only from its creatures and conservation projects but also from its isolation and otherworldly ecology. I hope efforts like Operation Nest-Egg and the Conservation Dogs will succeed in their ultimate quest to keep the island’s biodiversity thriving and protected from its current threats.