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Hardwoods for Habitat: Going Harder with Labour’s Billion Trees Goal

Brennan Panzarella                       Victoria University of Wellington                         ERES 525

The new Labour government has set a goal for the people of New Zealand to plant one billion trees over the next 10 years (MPI, 2018). Although they are now including the 500 million trees already planned by the private sector, they are sticking to their goal (Shane Jones, 2018). There are indications that a large portion of the increase in plantings will be Radiata pine, a tree that already dominates NZ forestry land. Herein lies an opportunity for the government to encourage a middle ground between the needs of productive plantation forestry and the needs of our indigenous biodiversity. Through incentivising strategic incorporation of native hardwoods,  New Zealand could grow its market for specialty timbers meanwhile increasing provision of habitat for indigenous species.


As seen in the chart below, Radiata pine is by far the most common species in plantation forests in New Zealand at 90% of total (MPI, 2018).

                               Plantation Forest Species Distribution as of 1 April 2017

           Source: Ministry for Primary Industries. National Exotic Forest Description.

Though there is a pervasive idea that monoculture stands of exotics are species deserts, there are records of native species utilising plantation pine areas. Radiata plantations offer a number of ecosystem services that include subsistence for wildlife. In many older exotic tree plantations, the sub-canopy plant and soil layers can be similar in comparison to indigenous forests. Pine plantations are likely among the ‘lesser evil’ of the agroindustrial land uses most common in New Zealand and can often harbour a much greater biodiversity than dairy farms and other pastoral operations (Ogden, 1997).

                                 New Zealand Falcon in front of Radiata plantings

 Photo by Debbie Stewart/Source: NZ Geographic

Biodiversity among pine plantations is not well studied so it is inconclusive if these plantations provide permanent habitat or if the presence of native species is dependent on immigration from nearby bush. From the little we know, proximity to indigenous forest is one of the main factors in increased indigenous biodiversity on forest plantations (Ogden, 1997). Even incorporating native plant communities in small sections of exotic planted stands can help preserve biodiversity after clear cutting (Woodley, 1997). Incorporating indigenous trees amongst exotic plantations could be a fruitful experiment to further observe how indigenous species react.   

On the other hand, plantations using native species have shown to be better at increasing species richness than plantations using exotic species. In one study, areas of primary forest transitioned to exotic plantation forest showed a 45% decrease in species richness. The same study showed native plantation forests significantly outperforming exotics when compared to control variables of paired secondary forests (Bremer, 2010).  Again we are reaching the limits of peer-reviewed science publications on the topic but there is enough evidence to warrant government incentives and to incorporate more native trees during the billion trees program.

Percent Change in Species Richness (Transitions to Plantations of Exotic vs. Native)      

Source: (Bremer, 2010)

One of the main tools in reaching out to private landowners and encouraging them to plant trees is the Ministry of Primary Industries’ Afforestation Grant Scheme (MPI, 2018). This gives $1,300 for each hectare of new plantings which also happens to be the average cost of planting up one hectare of Radiata pine (Shane Jones, 2018). The methods of implementation could be improved through encouraging the planting of a diversity of trees. By giving more grant money to planting schemes with multiple species plantings, habitats with a greater diversity of trees will support greater biodiversity.  Also incentivising the planting of longer to mature species would benefit the steady maintenance of habitat for a species living in plantations as biodiversity is increased when there are stands of trees at different ages (Gjerde, 1997).

                                                            Totara Plantation

                Source: Tane’s Tree Trust


A lot of old-timers will tell you, “they don’t make ‘em as good as the used to”. Regarding timber quality this is especially true. Radiata pine would be what the business world calls a “minimum viable product”. Genetically selected for as fast of growth as possible, the Radiata pine grown in New Zealand has a number of quality issues. It is the cheapest to grow and it is the fasting growing. But the quality of the timber makes it inferior for a number of building applications.  And this is reflected in the price in that Radiata pine on average is by far the cheapest timber you can purchase in New Zealand.

Radiata pine needs to be treated with heavy metals and/or arsenic to achieve rot resistance. Offcuts from treated pine create unnatural concentrations of heavy metals in waste streams and for people working with the wood. On the other hand, native hardwoods like Totara, Puriri and Kauri are resistant to decay in their natural states. The major problem is that they take longer to grow; but with a bit more patience, a bit more grant money from the government and the stamp of approval from ecologists, we could be saving two birds with one stone.

There is already a market in New Zealand for imported hardwoods like White Oak and Kwila (TimSpec 2018). Quality wood is difficult to source and expensive in New Zealand and this is largely because of the domination of Radiata pine.  With a little push in the right direction now, New Zealand could drastically reduce needs for imported hardwoods and reduce its carbon footprint by sourcing hardwoods locally.

Rewarewa Timber (source nativetimber.co.nz)

Totara is one of the most common indigenous trees to regenerate from farmed land, especially in Northland (Bergin, 2000). This indicates that it would be a good starter species for North Island foresters wanting to plant natives for timber. Rewarewa, although difficult to season, is a strong and unique looking timber and could become a hot commodity. There is also a growing market for Rewarewa honey and Rewarewa plantations could provide resilience to a specialty honey market threatened by Myrtle Rust. A study of 60-year-old Kauri timber showed that it could match many of the attractive characteristics seen in timber of old growth indigenous forests. Kauri logs nearly 40 cm in diameter were found to be achievable within 50 years (Bergin, 2005). Although most of us will be retired and out of the rat race in 50 years, the next generations would likely be grateful.

  Table top made with Black Maire (source: bushmansfriend.co.nz)

                                                                              It would likely take more work and more patience but we can create forestry habitats that incorporate a range of tree species. This should be emphasised in MPI’s communication with the public. With a special focus on high value, slower-growing specialty hardwoods, forestry stakeholders will be achieving the majority of MPI’s goals in the implementing of the billion trees plan, allowing for greater economic and ecological resilience.

MPI Stated Benefits of Forestry in Regard to the Billion Trees Program (MPI, 2018) Monoculture Radiata Polyculture Native Hardwood
Diversify income Already the industrial norm, increase in quality depends on intensive wood treatments (NZ Herald, 2014) Could lead to growth in market for specialty timbers and reduce need for timber imports
Invest in future Low value per log (TimSpec, 2018), lower upfront costs High value per log, higher upfront costs, less need for heavy metal treatments
Improve land productivity Higher biomass accumulation (Ogden, 1997), lower maintenance (Shane Jones, 2018) Closer plantings, more stems per hectare
Mitigate erosion Faster growth but higher turnover and more frequent soil denudation Slower to establish but more habitat permanence. Higher value timber would make selective logging more economical
Mitigate climate change Faster C02 absorption per tree Slower CO2 sequestration per tree but more stems per area land (Shane Jones, 2018)
Improve water quality Probably better than traditional pastoral More diverse forest absorbs and utilises more water (Aerts, 2011)
Moderate river flows Not ideal to harvest riparian trees Ideal for riparian improvement and indigenous species habitat
Provide important habitats for a range of native species Better than pastoral and dairy, evidence of high native diversity of sub-canopy plants, insects, insect eaters and NZ falcon (Ogden, 1997) Plethora of diversity and habitat
Create jobs Faster turnover creates more planting, harvesting, processing jobs More labour required for planting and maintenance



Aerts, R. & Honnay, O. (2011) Forest restoration, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. BMC Ecol 11: 29

Bergin, D. O. (2000). Current knowledge relevant to management of podocarpus totara for timber. New Zealand Journal of Botany, 38(3), 343.

Bergin, D. O., & Gea, L. (2005). Native trees: Planting and early management for wood production. Rotorua, N.Z.: Forest Research Institute.

Bremer, L. L., & Farley, K. A. (2010). Does plantation forestry restore biodiversity or create green deserts? A synthesis of the effects of land-use transitions on plant species richness. Biodiversity and Conservation, 19(14), 3893-3915.

Gjerde, I., & Saetersdal, M. (1997). Effects on avian diversity of introducing spruce Picea spp. plantations in the native pine Pinus sylvestris forests of western Norway. Biological Conservation,79(2-3), 241-250.

Ministry for Primary Industries. (2018, April 10). Afforestation Grant Scheme. Retrieved from http://www.mpi.govt.nz/funding-and-programmes/forestry/afforestation-grant-scheme/

Ministry for Primary Industries. (2018, April 10). Planting one billion trees. Retrieved from https://www.mpi.govt.nz/funding-and-programmes/forestry/planting-one-billion-trees/

NZ Herald. (2014, March 5). New Zealand tech turns pine into hardwood. Retrieved April 29, 2018, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/building-construction/news/article.cfm?c_id=24&objectid=11206599

Ogden, J., J. Braggins, K. Stretton, and S. Anderson. (1997). Plant species richness under Pinus radiata stands on the central North Island Volcanic Plateau, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 21: 17-29.

Pawson, S. M., Ecroyd, C. E., Seaton, R., Shaw, W. B., & Brockerhoff, E. G. (2010). New zealand’s exotic plantation forests as habitats for threatened indigenous species. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 34(3), 342-355.

Shane Jones on the billion trees plan. (2018, February 27). Retrieved from https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018634023/shane-jones-on-the-billion-trees-plan

Woodley, S., Forbes, G. (1997). Forest management guidelines to protect native biodiversity in the Fundy Model Forest. Unpublished report by New Brunswick Coop. Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. University of New Brunswick, New Brunswick, 35 pp.


Interdisciplinary Thinking and the Bionic Leaf: Ecological Restoration’s Newest Superheroes

By Leah Churchward

New tools and interdisciplinary approaches are required for conservation in today’s climate, in particular for ecological restoration. In our rapidly changing world, it is important to be able to recognize these new tools and approaches and support them so that they can be funded, developed, and implemented on a large scale. In the case of ecological restoration, this might mean taking a step back from nature reserves and other traditional management methods and focusing on a tool from another discipline. Ecological restoration has the potential to be much more than returning plants and animals to where we found them. The development of the bionic leaf is one example of a newer technology that was created from an interdisciplinary background of biology and chemistry. It has the potential to serve a major role in modern ecological restoration and to reduce the need for ecological restoration as a whole.

(Source: Harvard University)

The bionic leaf was developed by Pamela Silver, a professor of biochemistry at Harvard Medical School, and Daniel Nocera, a professor of energy (also at Harvard University). It is able to split water molecules from natural solar energy and to produce liquid fuels from hydrogen eating bacteria (1). The bacterium Ralstonia eutropha, in combination with the catalysts of the artificial leaf, is used as a hybrid inorganic-biological system. (2) This combination is able to drive an artificial photosynthetic process for carbon fixation into biomass and liquid fuels (2). This artificial photosynthesis transpires through the solar electricity from the photovoltaic panel which is enough to power the chemical process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. (7) The pre-starved microbes then feed on the hydrogen and convert CO2 in the air into alcohol fuels. (7)

Initially, the bionic leaf was created to make renewable energy accessible at a local scale for developing communities that are without an electricity grid (3). This new technology also has the potential to intake carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (mentioned above), reduce CO2 emissions and pollution, and provide cleaner fertiliser. In the current era of the Anthropocene, human practices and behaviours have had an impact on the entire planet. One of the most significant consequences is the unprecedented influx of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last century. This is taking its toll on ecosystems around the world and the unique flora and fauna that inhabit them. The field of ecological restoration is a result of the efforts to restore ecosystems negatively affected by anthropogenic activities.

(Source: Schroders)

A majority of the world’s population live in cities that are near biodiversity hotspots. There are 24 megacities (cities with 10 million inhabitants or more) located in lesser developed regions, with an additional 10 cities in developing nations projected to become megacities sometime between 2016 and 2030. (4) With over half of the world’s population living in cities, a great deal of power and fuel is required, and currently a majority of the world’s energy consumption is from fossil fuels. These same fossil fuels are responsible for the increased CO2 in the atmosphere. The first opportunity the bionic leaf brings for ecological restoration is by removing CO2 while performing artificial photosynthesis to begin to restore the atmosphere’s composition to pre-industrial times. (2) The second is by bringing clean and accessible fuel to developing communities, eliminating the need to build facilities such as mining operations, and reducing the need for ecological restoration to begin with. (6) This will create a diminishing reliance on fossil fuels and the land, air, and sea pollution that comes with their use. Besides pollution, climate change has affected the timing of reproduction in animals and plants, the migration of animals, the length of the growing season, species distributions and population sizes, and the frequency of disease and pest outbreaks. (5) It is projected to affect all aspects of biodiversity and therefore should be considered in restoration tactics. (5)

(Source: Harvard University)

The bionic leaf also has been transformed into a system that is able to make nitrogen fertiliser. When added to soil, a different engineered microbe can make fertiliser on demand. (6) Unlike most fertilisers used today in the agricultural industry, this one would not be synthesized from polluting resources. (7) Agricultural frontiers, or the outer regions of modern human settlements, are concentrated in diverse tropical habitats that are home to the largest number of species that are exposed to hazardous land management practices like pesticide use. (8) Because of their high biodiversity, these areas contain more sensitive, vulnerable and endemic species, and are areas expected to undergo the highest rate of species losses. (8) A lack of resources and education on proper pesticide usage has led to sharp deviations from agronomical recommendations with the overutilization of hazardous compounds. (8) Bringing the bionic leaf to these regions would mean cleaner fertiliser and the resources and education for proper pesticide usage. This would help mitigate the damage from improper use of hazardous pesticides as well as protect the biodiversity that was harmed by ingesting them.

Ecological restoration in a changing world calls for new tools and interdisciplinary approaches. When the field of conservation biology was officially established in 1985, the problems of global climate change were just beginning to be understood, as well as the effects on animal and plant species. Ecological restoration is an important section of the conservation biology field but the research and management strategies used going into the future should focus on having a more interdisciplinary approach. The bionic leaf is just one tool from collaborative thinking that can help restore biodiversity and habitats as well as clean up our atmosphere to reduce the need for major restoration projects in the future.



1. Peter Reuell. 2016. Bionic Leaf Turns Sunlight into Liquid Fuel. The Harvard Gazette. Accessed April 2018. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/06/bionic-leaf-turns-sunlight-into-liquid-fuel/
2. C. Liu, B.C. Colón, M. Ziesack, P.A. Silver, D.G. Nocera. Water Splitting-Biosynthetic System with CO2 Reduction Efficiencies Exceeding Photosynthesis. Science. Vol. 352. Issue 6290. 1210-1213. (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5039
3. W.J. Sutherland, P. Barnard, S. Broad, M. Clout, B. Connor, I. M. Côté, L. V. Dicks, H. Doran, A. C. Entwistle, E. Fleishman, M. Fox, K. J. Gaston, D. W. Gibbons, Z. Jiang, B. Keim, F. A. Lickorish, P. Markillie, K. A. Monk, J. W. Pearce-Higgins, L. S. Peck, J. Pretty, M. D. Spalding, F. H. Tonneijck, B. C. Wintle, N. Ockendon, A 2017 Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 32, Issue 1, Pages 31-40. (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2016.11.005.
4. United Nations. 2016. The World’s Cities in 2016. Available from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/urbanization/the_worlds_cities_in_2016_data_booklet.pdf. (Accessed April 27, 2018)
5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change and Biodiversity. Technical Paper V. 2002. http://ipcc.ch/pdf/technical-papers/climate-changes-biodiversity-en.pdf. (Accessed April 27, 2018)
6. Veronika Meduna. 2017. Bionic Leaf Might Power Earth. Stuff, New Zealand. https://www.stuff.co.nz/science/96110864/bionic-leaf-might-power-earth. (Accessed April 18, 2018).
7. David Biello. Bionic Leaf Makes Fuel From Sunlight, Water and Air. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bionic-leaf-makes-fuel-from-sunlight-water-and-air1/ (Accessed April 26, 2018).
8. L. Schiesari, A. Waichman, T. Brock, C. Adams, B. Grillitsch. Pesticide Use and Biodiversity Conservation in the Amazonian Agricultural Frontier. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Vol. 368. (2013). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0378.

Modifying Genes: Where is its place in Ecological Restoration?

Author: Fetuao Nokise

Figure 1: Where does modifying genes fit?

Indigenous species in the Anthropocene face a wide range of challenges including habitat loss, invasive species1, over-exploitation2, and climate change3. With around 15-50% of global biodiversity estimated to be extinct by 2050, the planet will continuously be managed and shaped in innovative yet potentially controversial ways. The modification of genes is a particular inventive way in which humans could reduce extinction rates of species4, but where does this fit in ecological restoration? The modification of genes could potentially be done in three explicit ways; transferring genes from one species to another, transfer of alleles from better-adapted individuals to vulnerable populations and introducing individuals as vehicles for infusion of novel alleles known as “gene rescue”5. The individual suitability of each approach is based upon current and potential studies as well as social and cultural perceptions of modifying genes.

Species to species gene transfer is a contentious approach as the particular alleles of a species is fundamentally modified. Success has been seen in agricultural practices through drought and temperature resistant crops where tomatoes have become cold-resistant6 using specific rice and Arabidopsis genes. This enables endless potential crossover of genes which may facilitate adaptation. But the result of shifting genes between different species has increased difficulties. Consequently the major concern is that accidental and uncontrollable outcomes may carry too much uncertainty5.

The approach of directly transferring particular alleles from better-adjusted populations into individuals from vulnerable populations would enable selective increases in mean fitness. Dependency of such is the identification of the specific genes possessing the adaptive qualities5. The potential of this technique is reliant on the impact the particular trait. Researchers recently discovered alleles connected to heat tolerance in commercial rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss7. The insertion of these alleles into fish eggs and embryos of vulnerable populations could result in adaptation to increases in temperatures. Complex traits are often linked with several genes ensuing uncertainties and predictions in outcomes are often tricky8. Although this approach is viewed as the least risk and comprises the most integrity as it involves the exact same species5, there is a lack of current studies which use this technique due to clear intricacies in identification of exact genes for certain traits.

Figure 2: Introduction of new males increased genetic diversity and facilitated adder population recovery. Total number and number of recruited male adders’ captured from 1981 to 199110.

The modification of genes through “gene rescue” is currently the only option which has been implemented successfully8. It is the introduction of individuals as a medium for the infusion of novel alleles into c

ertain threatened populations. Population recovery and increased efficiency has been seen in the introduction of female Texas panthers (Puma concolor stanleyana) into Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) populations creating hybrids9. Similarly population recovery has been seen by increased gene flow in Swedish adders10, bighorn sheep11, prairie chickens12 and very recently the Artic fox13.

The success of gene rescue highlights the significance and relevance of genetic modification in the anthropocene era. Scientific barriers do exist such as outbreeding depression, fitness reductions due to mating between hereditarily opposite individuals14, new diseases, disturbance of social interactions and cross-breed swarms15. Precautious planning and monitoring around introductions will mitigate and minimize these barriers and risks in conjunction with guidelines which have already been proposed for certain species15.

The biggest barrier to gene rescue is in certain social and cultural values. The concern of genetic purity and integrity of the target species causes reluctance in accepting and pursuing genetic rescue. But this is a process without biological constrictions and can happen “naturally” in the wild between subspecies or closely related species. The diversity of species categorized into hierarchy of class, order, genus and species assume species are fixed and discounts the complexity of reality8. This leads to the ecological restoration of forms in comparison to ecological processes fundamental to biodiversity. But many evolutionary examples showcase “natural” occurrences through hybridization16 and horizontal gene transfer17. The reluctance to recognize the value of gene rescue could potentially result in even more species extinctions18, 19.

From a scientific view there are certain measures which can be taken in order to maintain the purity and integrity of populations. Gene rescue strategies could be developed in ways which allows the infusion of alleles into threatened populations which raise fitness without losing the general gene distinctions between species8. Although specific examples of such are yet to exist, the principle of such is seen in introgressed species examples. In the example of the Florida panther earlier, the introduced females were removed after frequent breeding so that the particular introduced allele could remain but were back crossed with the enduring Florida panther9.

The modification of genes does not solve the problems of continual decreases in global biodiversity. It is a multi-faceted tool box where each tool is appropriate to a particular situation and species. This enables the persistence of species in light of continuous challenges. In an ecological restoration context, the modification of genes to facilitate population recovery may not completely restore historic ecosystems but may offer an opportunity to restore their ecological functions.


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How to apply conservation in a multicultural world – education and collaboration to provide unique solutions

Author: Finlay Morrison, Victoria University of Wellington


In our human dominated world if we are to help protect nature in the state we desire conservation is essential. Unfortunately, due to the wide-ranging impacts of climate change (Rosenzweig et al 2008, Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno 2010, Chen et al 2011) and the cost of conservation (Moore et al 2004, Bode et al 2008) protection of everything is not possible. Conservation must be targeted where it is needed most, but it is a value judgement whether we conserve a species for its own sake or for human benefit. There also needs to be public education of the limitations of conservation in the face of climate change. This is where values and culture play a large role in the outcomes of conservation, with various cultures having different approaches and successes. Therefore, with an approach that considers each culture’s conservation values, there is potential to provide unique solutions within a shared view for conservation in a multicultural world.


With the rise in technology the world has become more connected than ever before, some countries and cities have become a mix of many different cultures (Vertovec 2007). This has brought about difficulties when it comes to conservation in these areas, because a conservation objective is subject to the judgement of the global community as well as the locals. Therefore, conservation has become a globally critiqued act with many differing views, and as such is difficult to implement without some form of backlash (Manfredo et al 2017).


Conservation is implemented based on the values of a cultural group, be it protection of ecosystem services, a certain species, or a habitat. When you have a multicultural group of people values will vary throughout the population, and differing values should be considered as much as possible before anything is carried out. But what can be done when cultures clash and there is no room for compromise? For example, when there are species or habitats desired by a minority cultural group their values can often be ignored by the bigger more powerful group (Carter 2010). However, a way to control conservation in these situations would be the use of laws that gives rights to the minority culture and allows for compromise.


Minority cultural groups have had a history of being displaced and their beliefs ignored in the name of conservation (Mombeshora and Le Bel 2009, Carter 2010), especially when their customs are traditional and not driven by western science and technology. However, sometimes these cultural groups live a life closer to the nature they conserve and possess a great knowledge of their local ecosystem (Turvey et al 2014, Nash et al 2016). There are examples where local and traditional ecological knowledge proved useful for historic species counts and distribution identification (Rasalato et al 2010, Ainsworth 2011). Therefore, locals could be left in conservation areas and seen as keepers of the land, and through cooperation multicultural conservation could be possible.


Much like the species of the world, cultures are only going to continue to change and mix. It would be best if this change was guided towards a cooperative approach to conservation. For this to happen it will be necessary to educate the public that the world is changing, and some conservation values will need to be sacrificed. Each cultural group’s conservation practices aren’t perfect, but they possess unique knowledge on various methods of conservation (Berkes et al 2000). So, although complex, a cooperative approach considering each cultural group’s conservation values will help reach a shared value outcome (Berkes 2009, Raymond et al 2010, Meeussen et al 2018).


In conclusion, it is evident that each cultural group has their own unique beliefs for conservation. Some people are unable to accept the limitations of conservation and do not consider differing cultural dependencies on nature. Therefore, public education on conservation in the current state of our world and fostering collaboration between cultures will help to provide a shared vision for conservation in a multicultural world.



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Click-button Conservation: Connecting technology to environmental management

Monkeying around on the iPad

Connecting wildlife with technological solutions could revolutionise conservationa

Alex Gault, Victoria University of Wellington

As humans continue to ravage the earth to feed their consumerist habits, global biodiversity is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Overexploitation, invasive species and climate change are a few of the drivers of these losses and despite attempts every so often to ramp up conservation efforts, humans simply haven’t been able to take their foot off the accelerator towards a sixth mass extinction[1]. But just as human inventions may have been part of the undoing of many species, technology repurposed for conservation may help relieve the pressure on the world’s ecosystems.


A wildlife overpass crosses a highway in Singaporeb

Throughout human history, problems have been solved by turning ideas into technologies. Focus on human environmental impact and expanding research has seen fragmented ecosystems reconnected with highway wildlife overpasses, remote camera technology revolutionising studying species behaviour and invasive pests being taken out with species-specific toxins[2].

Technology excites people. Its evolution has taken Homo sapiens from inventing a wheel to driving mechanised metal boxes to get around. Redirecting the enthusiasm to the environmental cause could have astounding outcomes. Smartphones, olfactory analysis devices and remote-sensing technologies are readily-available and relatively cheap technologies[3]– a simple tweak here or there could produce a tailor-made conservation tool that is cheaper and less intrusive than current biosecurity, field research and pest control methods[4].


Preventing incursions of invasive species and curbing trade of rare species is a pressing issue for countries worldwide[5]. Biosecurity could be transformed by electronic “noses”, utilising odour-detecting technology initially developed for commercial chemical analysis to detect illegally-traded wildlife and smuggled biohazardous materials[6-7]. Costs for biosecurity would be reduced, increasing the capacity of operations and reducing risk of error from sniffer-dogs and humans.

Two samples of 3D-printed rhino horn. The material is genetically indistinguishable from real rhino hornc

Even human overexploitation could have a hi-tech solution. 3D printing rhino (Rhinocerotidae) horns to leak into the black-market has been proposed as a novel answer to thwart poaching[8]. However, concerns have been raised that synthetic horns won’t fool buyers as a stand-in for real rhino horn[8]. A history of failed attempts to stop poaching make sceptics more tentative – the issue is more deeply ingrained than a synthetic replacement can solve on its own. Research into the matter shows that the state of market saturation will have a large influence on whether or not the scheme may work, as well as the price and likeness at which synthetic horn is set[8]. The jury may be out on this one yet.


The future holds exciting new prospects. Humankind has now extended beyond mechanised tools and are now dipping toes into the unchartered waters of artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic modification (GM). The fear of being outsmarted by an AI robot or genetic mutants running rampant – a story gaining a regular spot in Hollywood – has alienated people from the potential of these technologies[9]. However, to preserve a thriving biodiverse environment, AI and GM should be embraced. Without them the potential for further conservation successes will be limited to that which can be achieved by man-power alone. This is not to say that caution and restraint shouldn’t be practiced – it must be certain that AI and GM products won’t become uncontrollable when unleashed.

Nevertheless, artificial intelligence and genetic modification represent the next big technological revolution, and conservation science will definitely be getting amongst the action. Artificially-intelligent robots have already been employed to inject poison into destructive coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) off the Great Barrier Reef (see video below)[10]. Early success in the project suggests that AI technology could be rolled out into other fields of invasive species management in a similar way. AI to analyse video footage and remote-sensing data would exponentially increase the capacity to collect valuable data[11], replacing the need for people to watch through thousands of hours of recordings, or for a risky voyage across the Southern Ocean to locate tiny colonies of seabirds on inaccessible islands[12]. The conceivable scale of projects simply dwarfs those possible using bare hands.

Video: A “COTSbot” in action, locating and lethally injecting a crown-of-thorns starfish.


Genetic modifications shouldn’t be ruled out either – GM plants have fed a globe of rapidly reproducing humans where ‘wild’ strains have been unable[13]. Giving species a push in the right direction to become better suited to fragmented, warmer habitats by facilitating inheritance of an advantageous gene could ensure species survival. The process, called a gene-drive, can be used both to prevent undesirable species proliferating or to fix advantageous genes in a struggling population[14].

Gene drive technology aims to spread genes throughout a population quicklyd

Here in New Zealand, gene drives have been floated as a novel method to stamp out the plethora of invasive insects and mammals gorging on native biota[15]. However, despite its promise, research warns that the technology is not yet ready to release into the wild[16]. The method, while excellent in theory, is less likely to pan out faultlessly in practice. Genetic modification also has significant opposition in the public sphere, especially from people who are less scientifically-savvy[9]. Nevertheless, while gene drive technology is still in its early days, with a bit of public education to bolster support, the concept may not be far off becoming a remarkable conservation tool inspired by evolution itself.


Technology cannot solve all the world’s problems. Evidently, putting a definitive end to human’s destructive habits would be the ultimate solution to halt global biodiversity losses. But as with many problems in human society, that is easier said than done. In the meantime, merging technology with conservation would help to facilitate more conservation successes for the environment. Refashioning mainstream tech to be environmentally-focused could drastically change the way science and environmental management moves forward, providing more tools to solve problems previously thrown into the “too hard” basket.


  1. Ceballos, G., et al., Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.Science advances, 2015. 1(5): p. e1400253.
  2. Rudnick, D.A., et al., The role of landscape connectivity in planning and implementing conservation and restoration priorities.Issues in Ecology, 2012(16): p. 1-23.
  3. Snaddon, J., et al., Biodiversity technologies: tools as change agents. 2013, The Royal Society.
  4. Marvin, D.C., et al., Integrating technologies for scalable ecology and conservation.Global Ecology and Conservation, 2016. 7: p. 262-275.
  5. Zavaleta, E.S., R.J. Hobbs, and H.A. Mooney, Viewing invasive species removal in a whole-ecosystem context.Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 2001. 16(8): p. 454-459.
  6. Wilson, A.D., Diverse applications of electronic-nose technologies in agriculture and forestry.Sensors, 2013. 13(2): p. 2295-2348.
  7. Sutherland, W.J., et al., A 2017 horizon scan of emerging issues for global conservation and biological diversity.Trends in ecology & evolution, 2017. 32(1): p. 31-40.
  8. Chen, F., The Economics of Synthetic Rhino Horns.Ecological Economics, 2017. 141: p. 180-189.
  9. Wunderlich, S. and K.A. Gatto, Consumer Perception of Genetically Modified Organisms and Sources of Information–.Advances in Nutrition, 2015. 6(6): p. 842-851.
  10. Platt, J.R., A starfish-killing, artificially intelligent robot is set to patrol the Great Barrier Reef.Sci. Am, 2016. 1.
  11. Gonzalez, L.F., et al., Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and artificial intelligence revolutionizing wildlife monitoring and conservation.Sensors, 2016. 16(1): p. 97.
  12. Wakefield, E.D., et al., Habitat preference, accessibility, and competition limit the global distribution of breeding Black‐browed Albatrosses.Ecological Monographs, 2011. 81(1): p. 141-167.
  13. Piaggio, A.J., et al., Is it time for synthetic biodiversity conservation?Trends in ecology & evolution, 2017. 32(2): p. 97-107.
  14. Champer, J., A. Buchman, and O.S. Akbari, Cheating evolution: engineering gene drives to manipulate the fate of wild populations.Nature Reviews Genetics, 2016. 17(3): p. 146.
  15. Royal Society of New Zealand., The use of gene editing to create gene drives for pest control in New Zealand. 2017.
  16. Redford, K.H., W. Adams, and G.M. Mace, Synthetic biology and conservation of nature: wicked problems and wicked solutions.PLoS biology, 2013. 11(4): p. e1001530.


a. Fish Wildlife. 2017. Animals playing technology. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbgiML8v334

b. The Straits Times. 2015. Take a walk along Eco-Link@BKE bridge especially reserved for animals. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/take-a-walk-along-eco-linkbke-bridge-specially-reserved-for-animals

c. TechCrunch. Pembient Rhino Horn 3D Printing. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjzVF9_-xuM

d. Hesman Saey, T. 2015. Gene drives aren’t ready for the wild, report concludes. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/gene-drives-aren’t-ready-wild-report-concludes

Video: TheQUTube (2016). COTSbot injects a COTS. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gij5i66UujU

Should we pay to play? Charging for New Zealand’s landscape

Mt Taranaki – Harley Betts

By Daniel Papworth

New Zealand (NZ) has some of the most beautiful landscape in the entire world. However some areas are getting overrun by tourists. Over the past year 3.8 million people visited NZ’s shores[1]. Over half of them explored at least one national park or protected area[2].

NZ’s National parks system aims to preserve the country’s intrinsic worth for the enjoyment of the public. Park land contains “scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest”[3]. The Department of Conservation (DOC) are charged with managing our parks, however they are seriously underfunded having around $20 a hectare of land they manage[4]. As a consequence from over use and lack of resources the beauty of these places may be at risk. Combined with climate change stress in these environments is mounting[5, 6]. Currently under the National Parks Act (1980) DOC is unable to charge for access. Regulation of the number of people visiting these area’s needs to be implemented to conserve them and their beauty.

Travelling abroad, you will almost always be charged to enter a national park. Chris Roberts, CEO of Tourism Aotearoa, says that only half a dozen sites in NZ are in serious need of number management[7]. Shouldn’t we then charge tourists to see these high use sites? Money spent on entry can be directed straight back into the maintenance of these tourist hotspots. The number of people visiting at one time can be monitored and regulated if needed. Another option is a ‘conservation tax’ or ‘nature levy’. When entering NZ international visitors could pay a small sum to be given to DOC for the upkeep of these high-use areas. If 3.8 million people visit a year and each is charged $20 that comes to seventy-six million dollars, nearly a quarter of DOC’s yearly budget. The total cost to visit NZ would then be $50, still cheaper than Australia’s $58-$85 border fee[8].

So why haven’t we used any of these methods yet? The problem is relatively new. Visitor numbers have increased from 2.6-3.8 million in the last five years[9]. In recent years DOC’s budget has reduced, making their job of maintaining these areas and conserving NZ’s endangered species all the more difficult. There is also likely hesitance to the investment for infrastructure. Buildings will need to be erected, people would have to be employed to process visitors. The difficulty of putting infrastructure in place could be avoided with the border tax option. However not every visitor is going to visit a national park, and some may visit multiple. Perhaps this information needs to be collected during the visa process. Or even just a free online booking system, purely for regulation purposes. Personally I feel that New Zealanders take great pride in their natural heritage. We have a certain expectation that these sort of things should free and easy to access. It feels less intrepid when you have to wait in a que to see it, less raw.

Over Easter weekend I had the pleasure of hiking the Northern Circuit in the central North Island. The locals say they cannot believe so many people still come to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Often commenting that so many come to do it they’re surprised everyone hasn’t already done it. That Easter Sunday over 3000 people walked the crossing. All those people winding their way up the mountain, using the toilets, wearing the track, stressing the fragile alpine environment[10]. Surely people will pay a small fee to experience these kind of areas. They didn’t pay to fly all the way around the globe to turn around at the gate because of a $10 entry fee. Visitors are great for the NZ economy, and these areas should be shared, but the need for number management is increasing.

So should we pay to play? Absolutely. More regulation is needed in these hot-spots for their longevity. Reducing the stress on these areas by having a charge is an opportunity we would be silly not to do. Let’s use tourism to help fund conservation. Let’s keep NZ beautiful.



  1. Statistics New Zealand (2018). Retrieved from https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/annual-visitor-arrivals-up-more-than-1-2-million-in-five-years
  2. Department of Conservation (2017). International Visitors Survey. Retrieved from http://www.doc.govt.nz/2017-annual-report-factsheets/?report=IVS_exp_by_NPk__2017_08_28_DOC_factsheet_template
  3. National Parks Act, No 66 (1980). Retrieved from http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1980/0066/latest/whole.html
  4. DOC is in desperate need of more funding (May 2017), Newshub. Retrieved from http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/05/jesse-mulligan-doc-in-dire-need-of-more-funding.html
  5. Scott, D. (2003, April). Climate change and tourism in the mountain regions of North America. In 1st International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism (pp. 9-11).
  6. Moreno, A., & Becken, S. (2009). A climate change vulnerability assessment methodology for coastal tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 17(4), 473-488.
  7. Visitors will keep coming if national park fees introduced (February 2017), Newshub. Retrieved from http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/02/visitors-will-keep-coming-if-national-parks-fees-introduced-industry.html
  8. New Zealand Green Party (2017). Tourism Levy Policy. Retrieved from https://www.greens.org.nz/policy/cleaner-environment/taonga-levy
  9. Statistics New Zealand (2018). Retrieved from https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/annual-visitor-arrivals-up-more-than-1-2-million-in-five-years
  10. Groot, R. (2003). The Tongariro National Park: Are We Loving it to Death? New Zealand Journal of Geography, 115(1), 1-13.