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Reconciliation Ecology: A prospect for Wellington resident humans and birds.

Zoë Armstrong

The Earth is considered to be 4.54 billion years old. Modern humans have existed on the planet for only around 200,000 years. In an earth history blink of an eye we have degraded an estimated 50% of the terrestrial world to a point where it is has become dysfunctional for wild species, they are displaced and lost (Vitousek et al., 1997). As our population continues to grow we increasingly manipulate the environment in order to support the human race. In turn, we reduce the land area available to other species and biodiversity is lost at an accelerating rate.

Traditional conservation efforts are no longer sufficient. A new approach must be considered as human land use expands and intensifies and we are increasingly unwilling to give up a modern lifestyle. Conventionally, conservation biology aims to preserve species, ecosystems and habitats through reservation (safeguarding resources to keep them in a ‘natural’ condition) and restoration (improvement of degraded resources to a more ‘natural’ state). While these strategies remain integral to conservation there are currently not enough, and increasingly fewer, natural spaces left on earth to conserve the world’s existing biodiversity in this way (Rosenzweig, 2003). Rosenzweig’s answer is reconciliation ecology, a “win-win” situation for human progress and global biodiversity. I will consider Zealandia, a wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand, as an example of reservation/restoration success with the potential for even greater success if a shift to reconciliation ecology is made.

The idea behind reconciliation ecology is to increase biodiversity in areas dominated by human activity. We need to find ways of making these spaces more favourable to a larger number of species, allowing them to reclaim previous biological ranges without diminishing our own. The fundamental concept of reconciliation ecology is the species-area relationship which illustrates that along a gradient of ecosystems of increasing area/size the number of species supported within an ecosystem also increases (Lomolino, 2000.) Larger areas have potential for greater habitat diversity and larger species population sizes. Fig 1.

Figure 1: Species area-relationships – Number of species supported by ecosystems of increasing size.

SPARIf we can increase functionality of human-land-use-areas for wildlife we can consider this an increase in ecosystem size. More species, including Homo sapiens, can be supported over an increasing proportion of Earth improving species richness the world over.

Opportunities for reconciliation ecology exist all over the world. A unique example is Zealandia, a public wildlife sanctuary in the middle of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. The sanctuary is regarded as a successful reservation and restoration project. 17 species of native fauna have been re-introduced and 30,000 individual trees, grasses and shrubs planted (Zelandia, 2012). Some of these species had become extinct on the mainland due to predation by introduced mammals and habitat loss (Holdaway, 1989). The project has also created and maintained a pest free environment within an 8.6km long mammal proof fence since 1995 (Zealandia, 2012). Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Zealandia is its location; a 252 hectare valley of successional forest in the suburb of Karori, 3km from the city centre, surrounded by urban infrastructure (Blick et al, 2008). This is what makes it a perfect candidate for the implementation of reconciliation ecology.

Most species have reproduced well in Zealandia and the ‘leaky’ nature of the fence in the case of avifauna has resulted in a spill-over effect being recorded for many birds into the urban area outside the reserve (Zealandia, 2012; Miskelly et. al 2005). According to species-area relationships the limited space of the sanctuary means it can only support a certain steady-state of species diversity (Rosenzweig, article 2003). If these bird species can also persist outside of the reserve there lies potential for larger and more species diverse populations of avifauna in Wellington. Reconciliation ecology suggests that this can be achieved by making the urban, human dominated environment more suitable for these birds.

A major pressure on New Zealand avifauna is habitat loss and fragmentation (King, 1984). This is a very real problem in Wellington as about 95% of the area’s original native forest cover has been lost. Suitable habitat for native birds outside of the Zealandia sanctuary must exist in order for reconciliation ecology to be effective. A study conducted in the New Zealand city of Dunedin describes some attributes of habitat in urban areas that appear to promote native bird species diversity (van Heezik et al, 2008). Van Heezik et al. found higher proportions of native bird species and increased bird species richness to exist in gardens and areas with greater plant ‘complexity’. Complexity in this case meant more plant cover (as opposed to lawns etc.), an increased proportion of native plant species and the presence of trees (van Heezik et al, 2008). They also found that native bird species number and diversity was higher still in areas close to remnant bush fragments (van Heezik et al, 2008). This indicates that the focus for reconciliation ecology for native birds in Wellington should be on creating quality, complex habitats. Wellington city includes an assortment of green areas which host a range of flora: 24 council parks and reserves, a town belt, a green belt, 4 botanic gardens and residential gardens. Improving the coverage of native plants, especially trees, in these existing green areas could increase avifaunal populations and biodiversity without the cost of setting aside new reserves and disrupting land use for the human population of Wellington. The planting of some native species can even promote spontaneous regeneration of others. This has been seen in Christchurch, a New Zealand city with very few remnant native plants. A relatively new public interest in native flora has seen purposeful plantings of native canopy trees in parks and gardens which has resulted in the emergence of some native vegetation that hasn’t been recorded in the city for over a century (Stewart et al. 2004).

Wellington has already has a long running council programme providing residents and community groups with free native plants and information. These plants are “eco-sourced” from a nursery in the city for planting on public land or on private residential property. As more of these natives are planted in place of exotic and invasive species we should also see an increase in native avifauna.

Perhaps the greatest threat to all native New Zealand fauna are introduced mammalian predators (King, 1984). The complete absence of pest predators from Zealandia has been key in the success of its breeding populations of native birds. For most species, absence of or at least low predator numbers will be necessary for them to survive and reproduce outside the sanctuary. In 2004 Wellington City Council created a pest management plan. The plan considers possums, rats, mice, mustelids and cats to be the most detrimental to Wellington’s native birds (WCC, 2004). No city-wide management strategies for the aforementioned pests were initiated, though some “Key Native Ecosystems” receive site specific pest control (WCC, 2004). More recently the Morgan Foundation has introduced the ‘Halo Project’ to encourage Wellington households in the suburbs surrounding Zealandia to support conservation and native biodiversity in the city by creating a pest free ‘halo’. This initiative provides residents with education opportunities, resources and funding support for pest control in their own backyards so that birds leaving the sanctuary may avoid predation in the surrounding area. Majorly increased management of pest populations and new approaches will be vital in maintaining a functional ecosystem for native birds in the urban environment.

Reconciliation ecology relies heavily on one thing; public support. Pest control and plantings require funding and labour. The conservationist’s struggle has always been to muster sufficient resources and community buy-in. This is especially true for restoration and reservation efforts where the public may see little or no benefit in supporting this kind of conservation. Miller describes our collective apathy as an extinction of experience, if we haven’t experienced nature we aren’t inclined to preserve it (Miller, 2005). Disconnection to the natural world is only increasing with socio-economic progress, but at the same time, humans are still inherently biophilic. Reconciliation ecology utilises this paradox. If we are able to make connections with native wildlife in our day to day lives we are more likely to support their protection (Miller, 2005). This seems to be true of the Zealandia example. Wellington residents are found to be more likely to have positive attitudes toward native bird species if they have had some kind of interaction (Charles, 2013). Another survey found residents to have better ecological knowledge of neighbourhood bird life the more they visited green spaces and the larger their gardens (Parker, 2009). Residents planting trees in order to attract birds was a substantial inference for both positive attitude and bird knowledge (Charles, 2013; Parker, 2009). Visiting Zealandia, a green space where the public can interact with native birds, should certainly spark an interest for residents to make their properties more suitable for native birds. If residents can be convinced to support pest control and further plantings, the avifauna of Zealandia will have a hugely increased range and greater species richness will be supported.

There is potential for more than a win-win outcome through reconciliation ecology – a positive feedback loop Fig 2. As the public are increasingly exposed to native wildlife they become more interested in its conservation, in turn they actively support conservation, resulting in the improvement of the human-dominated environment for native species whose populations grow and biodiversity is increased.

Figure 2: Reconciliation Ecology Positive Feedback Loop


There is a real possibility for reconciliation ecology to work in this way in Wellington. An increase in native bird numbers has occurred following the creation of Zealandia (Zealandia, 2012). Human-bird interactions increase through public visiting the sanctuary and spill-over of birds into the urban environment. Reconnecting residents with native avifauna, that they may be seeing for the first time in their life, creates positive attitudes and improved ecological knowledge. Increased exposure to birdlife and a better ecological understanding should result in greater support for planting and pest control, whether it be through finance, volunteer work or improving private land. The urban areas of Wellington will become more suitable to native birds whose populations will have a better chance of survival and an increased presence throughout the city. Native bird number increase spurs the positive feedback loop all over again.

Reconciliation ecology trumps traditional conservation efforts with its potential for an overall positive loop gain. In theory reconciliation ecology could see an exponential increase in biodiversity and numbers of target species in conservation projects. It allows us to be the solution to a problem we have created.

Blick, R., Bartholomew, R., Burrell, T., and Burns, K.C. (2008) Successional dynamics after pest eradication in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. New Zealand Natural Sciences 33, 3-14.

Charles, Kerry (2013). Urban human-wildlife conflict: North Island kākā (Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis) in Wellington City. Unpublished master’s thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.

Holdaway, R. N., (1989). New Zealand’s pre-human avifauna and its vulnerability. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 12, 11-25.

King, Carolyn (1984). Immigrant Killers. Auckland, NZ: Oxford University Press.

Lomolino, M. V. (2000), Ecology’s most general, yet protean pattern: the species-area relationship. Journal of Biogeography 27, 17–26.

Miller, J. R (2005). “Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience”. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20,430–434

Miskelly, C., Empson R., & Wright K. (2005). Forest birds recolonising Wellington. Notornis. 52(1), 21-26.

Parker, John (2009). An Analysis of Urban Ecological Knowledge and Behaviour in Wellington, New Zealand. Unpublished master’s thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.

Rosenzweig, Michael (2003). Win-win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise. New York: Oxford University Press.

(1) Rosenzweig, Michael (2003). Reconciliation ecology and the future of species diversity. Oryx 37, 194-205

Stewart, G.H.; Ignatieva, M.E.; Meurk, C.D.; Earl, R.D. 2004. The re-emergence of indigenous forest in an urban environment, Christchurch, New Zealand. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 2: 149-158.

Van Heezik Y, Smyth A, Mathieu R 2008. Diversity of native and exotic birds across an urban gradient in a New Zealand city. Landscape and Urban Planning 87, 223–232.

Vitousek, P., Mooney, H., Lubchenco, J. & Melillo, J. (1997) Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science 277, 494–499


Zealandia (2012) Review of Zealandia: An independent report for the Karori Sanctuary Trust and the Wellington City Council on the Governance, Management, and Operations of Zealandia.


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