In the “New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2000-2020

Introduction: Out on our own

Isolation is a strong theme of New Zealand's biological and cultural histories. Evolution through a long period of isolation created unique flora and fauna. After splitting off from other continents 80 million years ago, the New Zealand landmass became the stage for the evolution of plants and animals so distinctive that it has been described as the closest scientists will get to studying life on another planet1.

The long isolation and slow evolution meant these plants and animals were especially vulnerable to new changes. New Zealand was one of the last large land areas on earth to be settled by humans. The settlers, and the exotic species they brought with them, had a dramatic impact on our indigenous biodiversity.

Isolation has also benefited New Zealanders. Coupled with our low population density, it has spared us the worst effects of pollution and helped us to maintain a relatively clean, green and healthy environment. The challenge facing us now is to sustain the benefits that are provided by our natural environment, and to halt the decline of our indigenous biodiversity.

This means managing biodiversity in ways that are of benefit to all. It requires us to think "over the fence". We cannot continue to think of protected and productive places separately. Natural systems do not recognise human boundaries. As well as protecting our most important places for indigenous biodiversity, we have to manage this biodiversity as best we can in farming and forestry environments and alongside marine industries, while ensuring a sustainable return from these activities.

Sustaining New Zealand's biodiversity will benefit the whole community, through the clean air and water and biological productivity that come from healthy ecosystems, the pride and profit we get from New Zealand's distinctive biological and green branding, and the enjoyment and sense of identity we derive from our natural world.

Biological diversity, or "biodiversity" for short, describes the variety of all biological life — plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms — the genes they contain and the ecosystems on land or in water where they live. It is the diversity of life on earth2.

Maori view of biodiversity

Maori have a holistic view of the environment and biodiversity that derives from a cosmogony (belief system) that links people and all living and non-living things. Descended from the union of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother), and their offspring, the atua kaitiaki (spiritual guardians) — Tane (atua of forests), Tumatauenga (atua of war and ceremony), Rongo (atua of cultivation), Tangaroa (atua of seas), Tawhirimatea (atua of wind and storms) and Haumietiketike (atua of land and forest foods) — humans share a common whakapapa (ancestry) with other animals and plants. People are therefore part of nature and biodiversity.

All components of ecosystems, both living and non-living, possess the spiritual qualities of tapu, mauri, mana, and wairua. Maori, as tangata whenua, are the kaitiaki (guardians) of these ecosystems and have a responsibility to protect and enhance them. This responsibility of people to other living things is expressed in the concept of kaitiakitanga — or guardianship.

As the people are intrinsically linked with the natural world, the mana of the iwi, hapu, or whanau is directly related to the well-being of the natural resources within their rohe, or region.

Understanding and valuing the Maori world-view is an essential step towards a bicultural approach to biodiversity management.

Why New Zealand's biodiversity matters

New Zealand's contribution to global biodiversity

New Zealand's unique biodiversity is internationally important. We boast the world's only flightless parrot (kakapo); a bird with nostrils at the end of its beak (kiwi); a primitive frog that lays eggs that hatch adult frogs (Leiopelma species); a large insect which fills a role that small rodents play in other countries (giant weta); and many other exceptional species.

High percentages of New Zealand's indigenous species are endemic (they are found nowhere else on earth) — a result of isolated evolution and the diversity of New Zealand's land and seascapes. This level of endemism is remarkable internationally. Both species of New Zealand bat are endemic, as are all four frogs, all 60 reptiles, more than 90 percent of insects and a similar percentage of marine molluscs, about 80 percent of vascular plants3, and a quarter of all bird species. In contrast, Great Britain, which separated from continental Europe only 10,000 years ago, has only two endemic species: one plant and one animal. Half a dozen islands in the Hauraki Gulf have a greater level of endemism than the whole of Britain.

The ecosystems in which these species live are also highly distinctive. The kauri forests of the northern North Island, the braided river systems of the eastern South Island, and our geothermal ecosystems are some examples.

The uniqueness of much of New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity means that responsibility for its continued existence is entirely ours; it cannot be conserved in nature elsewhere in the world.

The value of biodiversity to New Zealand

New Zealand's biological world is the inspiration for our national icons — the kiwi, silver fern and
koru. As New Zealanders, we are shaped by these symbols of our natural environment and our relationship to it — whether by cabbage trees or kahikatea forest, weta or whitebait. We would be impoverished kiwis indeed if our national icons went the way of the huia and the moa.

Biodiversity is New Zealand's biological wealth. We base much of our economy on the use of biological resources, and benefit from the services provided by healthy ecosystems. These "ecosystem services" include producing raw materials (principally food from the sea and fibre from the land), purifying water, decomposing wastes, cycling nutrients, creating and maintaining soils, providing pollination and pest control, and regulating local and global climates. Yet we tend to take these services for granted because they are provided free of charge by nature.

Aside from the biological resources we use now, New Zealand's biodiversity represents a pool of untapped opportunities. Like the endemic sponge, discovered off the Kaikoura coast, that produces a cancer-fighting substance, there are almost certainly other species with potentially useful and commercially valuable compounds. Scientists believe that most of these have not yet been discovered.

A 1997 study by economists suggested that the total annual value provided by New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity could be more than twice that of New Zealand's gross domestic product (GDP)4.

The annual value of indigenous biodiversity on land in 1994 was estimated at $46 billion. This was made up of $9 billion from direct uses (including food and raw materials from agriculture and horticulture and timber from forests), $30 billion from indirect uses5 of ecosystem services, and $7 billion from passive values6. Marine ecosystem services were valued at $184 billion per year (including $315 million from fishing), reflecting the importance of oceans in the functioning of the biosphere and the vast tracts of ocean under New Zealand's care. This makes the estimated total annual value of indigenous biodiversity $230 billion; GDP for the same year was $84 billion.

These estimates represent the value of whole ecosystems, rather than the value of biodiversity to be lost or gained at the margin. To illustrate: the loss of 5-10 percent of the annual direct benefits from indigenous biodiversity is equivalent to about $500 million-$1000 million per year. In comparison, the Government currently spends $166 million on biodiversity management7.

New Zealand's land-based primary production — farming, forestry and horticulture — is reliant on the protection and management of biological systems. These industries are also based on introduced species (for example, sheep, cattle, radiata pine, apple and kiwifruit). Maintaining the genetic diversity of these species internationally is crucial to their ongoing resilience to environmental change and usefulness for our primary industries.

In addition to our productive systems being underpinned by healthy ecosystems, our "clean and green" environment is a major selling point in itself and will reap increasing rewards in the 21st century. New Zealand primary producers target customers who enjoy high-quality products that come from a healthy and unpolluted environment. This is also the foundation of our tourism industry. However, our increasingly demanding international clients expect the green image to be backed up by reality.

Apart from the value of biodiversity in sustaining our present quality of life, to many people biodiversity has intrinsic value — the value of the variety of life in itself. As mentioned above, for Maori, indigenous biodiversity is an integral aspect of their world-view, and they have a special role and responsibilities as kaitiaki of our indigenous biodiversity. The responsibility of humans towards other living things and our obligations to future generations provide a strong moral basis for their conservation and underlie the requirements in the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Biodiversity Challenges

New Zealand's biodiversity decline

New Zealand, one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans, has one of the worst records of
indigenous biodiversity loss. While biodiversity varies in natural cycles, nothing since the extinction of the dinosaurs (65 million years ago) compares with the decline in indigenous biodiversity in New Zealand over the last century. Figure 1.1 illustrates the rate of decline of some of our indigenous ecosystems and species.

The first phase of decline was the loss of New Zealand's larger bird species when humans first settled
here. By around 1600, about a third of the original forests had been replaced by grasslands, although
other habitats, for example wetlands and coastal areas, remained largely unchanged8. From around 1850, the gathering pace of European settlement started a new wave of forest destruction. Since then, a further third of our original forests have been converted to farmland, and there has been extensive modification of wetlands, dunelands, river and lake systems, and coastal areas. Other bird species, such as the huia and laughing owl, also became extinct during this time.

As far as we know, in the last 700-800 years, humans and their accompanying pests have made extinct:

  • 32 percent of indigenous land and freshwater birds;
  • 18 percent of endemic sea birds;
  • three of seven frogs;
  • at least 12 invertebrates such as snails and insects;
  • one fish, one bat and perhaps three reptiles; and
  • possibly 11 plants9.

Today, about 1000 of our known animal, plant, and fungi species are considered threatened. And it is likely that many presently unknown species are also threatened. Many populations of these threatened species have disappeared from areas where they were once found. This pattern of local loss is the forerunner to species extinction.

Figure 1.1: The trend of indigenous biodiversity decline in the last millennium
Figure 1.1: The trend of indigenous biodiversity decline in the last millennium10

Species losses are often the result of an even more pervasive loss — that of natural ecosystems and habitats. Changes in New Zealand's landscapes have had a dramatic impact on New Zealand's biodiversity. Sixty-three percent of New Zealand's land area has been converted into farms, exotic forests, settlements and roads. A once continuous range of unique ecosystems has been turned into a patchwork of isolated fragments. Although a third of the country is managed for conservation purposes, most of this is in upland areas and the mountains. The lowlands, river margins, wetlands, dunelands and coastal areas have relatively few natural habitats for native species.

While ongoing habitat loss and modification continue to be a threat to indigenous biodiversity, an even more serious and pressing threat in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems is from invasive introduced species which have become animal pests and weeds. Collectively invasive pests pose the greatest single threat to our remaining natural ecosystems and habitats and threatened native species.  They damage habitats and important ecosystem processes, and compete with indigenous species for food and prey on them. Invasive pests also pose high costs and a significant ongoing threat to productive ecosystems.

The most damaging animal pests include possums, goats, deer, rats, stoats and feral cats. We also have
at least 240 invasive weed species considered harmful to native species. Many of our domesticated species, such as garden plants, have the capacity to become pests or weeds in the wild unless we are vigilant. The possibility of further pests and weeds, such as Asian gypsy moth, or harmful marine organisms being brought into the country, is also an ever-present threat.

Threatened ecosystems

Natural habitats and ecosystems, as well as species, can become rare and threatened. Historically New Zealand has focused on protecting alpine areas and native forests, leaving many other distinctive natural habitats and ecosystems vulnerable to change. Our most threatened natural ecosystems are in lowland areas. Once part of more extensive natural ecosystems, these remnants are now generally isolated patches within or on the edge of farm or forestry lands.

These include:

  • lowland wetlands and peat bogs;
  • lowland riverine systems and adjacent forests;
  • dunelands;
  • coastal forest, scrub and herbfields;
  • lowland tussock grasslands; and
  • eastern South Island braided river ecosystems.

Unlike natural areas on land, only a small number of marine habitats have been fully protected.  One of the main reasons for this is our very limited knowledge about New Zealand's marine biodiversity. However, marine research is showing that marine areas are more diverse and distinctive than we realised.

What we don't know

There are still many things we don't know about New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity. There are many small or less visible species that have never been described, and many marine species that have yet to be discovered. It is estimated that we may have as many as 80 000 indigenous species, yet only 30 000 have been described so far. Most of the unknowns belong to our less appreciated taxonomic groups: fungi, and invertebrate animals such as insects, spiders, worms and molluscs (slugs, snails and shellfish).

The slowing of decline

The first responses to New Zealand's biodiversity losses were made by Maori, well before Europeans arrived here. Following the first wave of extinctions, Maori adapted to their new environment and developed conservation practices that governed their use of natural resources. This included the use of tikanga (protocols), tapu (sacred prohibitions) and rahui (temporary restrictions) to control the areas, seasons or species harvested. At the heart of Maori environmental management is the sustainable use of biological resources.

More recently, changes in attitudes to the natural environment and an increase in active conservation
management, particularly over the last three decades, appear to have slowed the rate of decline of New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity. Widespread clearance of native vegetation, often under subsidy,
drainage of wetlands, extensive reclamation of estuaries, and unrestricted fishing have stopped.  Breakthroughs in threatened species management, including new pest control techniques, restoring offshore island sanctuaries, and extending protected areas on land and in the sea, collectively have had an impressive effect. However, they do not appear to be enough to halt the decline.

With the status of our indigenous biodiversity still on a downward trend, the challenge now is to halt this decline and nudge it towards an upward path, as outlined in Parts Two, Three and Four of the Strategy.

Introduced species

At the same time as indigenous biodiversity was in retreat, New Zealand's total biodiversity (or more precisely, the total number of species) was growing as increasing numbers of exotic species were brought into the country. New Zealand now has the highest number of introduced mammals of any country in the world and the second highest number of introduced birds. In the case of vascular plants, we now have more introduced species in the wild than native ones. Figure 1.2 shows the proportion of New Zealand's native vascular plant species compared to our introduced vascular plants, both in cultivation and those now established in the wild (naturalised). This gives some idea of the potential risk of further introduced plants becoming naturalised and competing with native plants.

Some introduced species perform valuable ecological services in ecosystems that have been changed or where indigenous species have been lost. For example, gorse scrub is often a nursery for indigenous plant seedlings, plants such as banksia and tree lucerne are a food source for native birds, and some introduced birds, such as blackbirds, have become important dispersers of native plant seeds. New Zealanders value many introduced species, for aesthetic, recreational and cultural reasons.  Unfortunately, some are also (or have the potential to be) pests or weeds and can be a threat to our natural ecosystems and indigenous species. Management of these introduced species poses special challenges.  Despite knowing that species are being lost from some areas, we do not have a good overall picture of how many local extinctions are occurring and how fast, nor of the overall trends and condition in natural habitats and ecosystems. The lack of information makes many decisions about managing biodiversity uncertain. Investment in science and information, drawing on local and traditional knowledge and making best use of what we already know, is vitally important to progress in managing biodiversity.

New Zealand is almost entirely dependent on introduced species for its primary production — in agriculture, horticulture and forestry. Through selective breeding we modify these species to meet changing market needs. This process can lead to losses in genetic diversity (or genetic erosion) which may limit New Zealand's future ability to develop new breeds and varieties. It can also lessen the resilience of these species to pests and diseases and environmental change.

This Strategy is about managing threats to New Zealand's total biodiversity — both introduced and indigenous. A significant portion of our export wealth — critical to our ability to protect our indigenous biodiversity — is generated by the sale of our introduced biodiversity. And our biosecurity threats are often common to both. Introduced biodiversity is neither all "good" nor all "bad"; threats or benefits of individual introduced species most often depend on the situation in which they arise. The interactions between the introduced and indigenous elements of our biodiversity are complex and dynamic and need to be understood and addressed if we are to achieve our biodiversity goals.

Figure 1.2: Native versus introduced vascular plants
Figure 1.2: Native versus introduced vascular plants

New Zealand has 10% of the world's plants, of these, 7.8% are native, 7.8% are introduced plants that have naturalised (become established in the wild) and 84.4% are introduced plants in cultivation or gardens, but not yet naturalised.

Biodiversity management—past and present

Significant progress has been made in reducing the threats to our indigenous biodiversity in the last few decades. New Zealand's environmental protection and management legislation and administrative structures were substantially reformed in the 1980s and 1990s. There has also been a groundswell of initiatives by private landowners and communities to protect and restore natural areas, assisted by mechanisms such as the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, Nature Heritage Fund11, and Nga Whenua Rahui.

Contemporary environmental legislation and management cover three broad fields:

  1. Resource management: the sustainable management of land, freshwater and coastal ecosystems, and harvested biodiversity, including forestry and fisheries management;
  2. Conservation management: the protection and management of natural areas (such as national parks, reserves and conservation areas and marine reserves) and protected species; and
  3. Biosecurity management: the management of risks associated with the importation and accidental introduction of introduced species, new organisms and hazardous substances, and management of threats from established pests.

This management framework provides a solid basis for a greater focus on conserving and sustainably using New Zealand's biodiversity, and is backed by strong public support for a healthy environment, as well as a history of public consultation and involvement in management processes.

There have also been major steps forward in our technical capacity to manage indigenous species and
to restore ecosystems. New Zealand is a world leader in the establishment and management of island sanctuaries for threatened species — achieved through the eradication of possums, goats, cats and rats from offshore islands to create safe havens for rare or threatened species. These techniques are now increasingly being applied to the intensive management of "mainland islands" to dramatically improve their value as conservation assets.

Some key issues

The challenge to us as a nation is to continue to build on our strengths and interweave these three strands — our management framework, community and private support, and technical capacity — to deal effectively with New Zealand's most pressing biodiversity issues.

These key issues include:

  • finding ways to maintain the indigenous biodiversity values of natural habitats and ecosystems outside public protected areas, and to sympathetically manage indigenous biodiversity in production landscapes and seascapes. Both these tasks involve restoring connections between presently isolated fragments of natural ecosystems;
  • restoring the condition of already protected ecosystems and the indigenous species found within them, principally by controlling pests and weeds, managing harvesting, and intensively managing the most threatened species; and
  • improving our technical knowledge and community understanding of biodiversity (including the Maori world-view and the important role traditional knowledge can play in sustainably managing our biodiversity) and enhancing communities' opportunities and capacity to be involved in biodiversity management. Good information is critical for targeting efforts effectively and enabling New Zealanders to make informed choices about biodiversity and its future.

Importance of a Biodiversity Strategy for New Zealand

New Zealand's international position

New Zealand aspires to be seen internationally as being clean and green, and a responsible steward of its environment and biodiversity. Over the next 20 years, we can anticipate a growing international expectation that countries will fulfil their duty of care for their biodiversity and that producers will be able to demonstrate to their customers the part they play in this.

New Zealand has an international responsibility to meet commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Ratified by New Zealand in 1993, the Convention is a response to global biodiversity decline. A ground-breaking international initiative, its significance lies in the scientific and moral imperatives that it establishes for proactive management of biodiversity on a worldwide scale. The Convention on Biological Diversity requires signatory nations to prepare national
strategies or plans to set national goals to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.

National commitments

New Zealand made a commitment to prepare a national strategy to set clear goals for New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity in the Environment 2010 Strategy, the Government's strategy on the environment released in 1995. In 1998 the Government adopted "halting the decline of indigenous biodiversity" as one of its ten Strategic Priorities.

The challenge, at a national level, is to integrate biodiversity considerations across all sectors of government and the economy, with a focus on the Government's core responsibilities within an appropriate governance framework.

The challenge regionally and locally

The Convention on Biological Diversity emphasises the need to conserve biodiversity in situ, in its natural surroundings. While New Zealand needs to set national priorities and targets, biodiversity exists locally; once priorities have been set, it is local management effort that will determine successful outcomes. The challenge regionally and locally is to translate national priorities and targets into regional and local plans and programmes, promoting the effective participation of communities and resource managers. This will be a joint effort, with central government helping to guide, coordinate, and resource regional and local responses.

The challenge to everyone

Our biodiversity is a living treasure we hold for future generations.

The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy is an initiative that provides an integrated response to New Zealand's declining biodiversity. It seeks change from:

  • the current decline in indigenous biodiversity to a level of stabilisation;
  • a paucity of knowledge to better, more widely used information;
  • implicit to explicit biodiversity management requirements;
  • ad hoc arrangements to clearly aligned and coordinated actions;
  • little market recognition of biodiversity to market-driven rewards and sanctions; and
  • limited community understanding and involvement to widespread, informed community action.

The Strategy is government-led, but cannot be achieved by government alone. All the myriad of resource
management decisions made by land managers, resource users, iwi and hapu, and others, affect biodiversity. It will be changes in the day-to-day practices of all New Zealanders that will determine our record in biodiversity management. And the bottom line in management is that the loss of ecosystems and species is irreversible. Decisions that New Zealanders make today provide the biodiversity legacy or debt to their grandchildren.

Taking the next steps together

The involvement of a wide spectrum of society in implementing the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy is vital for its success. Part Two of the Strategy sets out a vision and national goals and principles, Part Three outlines what needs to be done to achieve these and the key players involved, and Part Four describes the first steps for implementation.

The Convention on Biological Diversity12

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity has been on the international agenda for some time. In 1973, the very first session of the Governing Council for the new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) identified the "conservation of nature, wildlife and genetic resources as a priority area".

The international community's growing concern over the unprecedented loss of global biodiversity due to the effects of human activities inspired negotiations for a legally binding instrument aimed at halting this alarming trend. As a result, the UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and came into force in December 1993.
To date, 175 countries have ratified the Convention.

The Convention's objectives are:

  • the conservation of biological diversity;
  • the sustainable use of its components; and
  • the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.

The Convention is the first global agreement to comprehensively address all aspects of biological
diversity: ecosystems, species, and genetic resources.

The requirement for signatory countries to develop national biodiversity strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity (Article 6) is a key to implementing the Convention.

National planning for biodiversity enables countries to set their own objectives for managing biodiversity — consistent with the Convention, but reflecting the context of their own domestic environmental policies and capabilities.


1 Diamond, J. 1990. New Zealand as an archipelago: an international perspective. In Ecological Restoration of
New Zealand Islands, pp 3—8. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

2 See Glossary for a full definition of biological diversity.

3 Vascular plants include ferns, flowering plants and trees, but do not include mosses and liverworts (of which New Zealand has over 1,000 species).

4 Patterson M and Cole A 1999. Assessing the Value of New Zealand's Biodiversity. Occasional Paper Number 1, School of Resource and Environmental Planning, Massey University, February 1999.

5 "Indirect uses" of biodiversity include climate regulation, erosion control, soil formation, nutrient retention, waste treatment, pollination and biological control.

6 Passive values includes "option value" (the value of future use options), "existence value" (the value of preserving biodiversity for its own sake), and "bequest value" (the value placed on biodiversity for future generations). See glossary for further explanations of "economic value".

7 This is the amount spent by central government agencies across all "Votes" that have a biodiversity management comp

8 While Maori contributed to the loss of forests, natural events, such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires arising from natural causes, were also contributing factors.

9 Ministry for the Environment, The State of New Zealand's Environment, 1997.

10 Estimated trends of indigenous biodiversity loss (as reflected in species extinctions and loss of forest ecosystems) in
New Zealand since 1000AD based on data from published sources including The State of New Zealand's Environment, 1997.

11 Formerly the Forest Heritage Fund.

 

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