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Confinement or Conservation? The role zoos play in the conservation movement

The popularity of zoological institutions has been steadily declining in recent years, as public perception and approval of keeping animals in captivity decreases (Whitworth, 2012). This has lead to an evolution in the role of zoos, with many zoos moving away from strictly entertainment based businesses towards a more conservation focused, globally connected industry (Barongi et al., 2015). All members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) are now required to set conservation-relevant goals (Barongi et al., 2015). As anthropogenic threats to biodiversity in natural ecosystems, such as habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, and over-exploitation of natural resources, continue to expand (Miller et al., 2004), virtually all ecosystems are undergoing catastrophic declines in their natural species. This is emphasised in Living Planet Index’s latest report, indicating that vertebrates have declined by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). It is clear that it will not be possible to halt this decline without pursuing a range of conservation approaches. In this, collection-based institutions can play a significant role in the ex-situ conservation of many species worldwide (Bowkett, 2009).


For species whose habitat is severely threatened, ex-situ populations (outside of their natural habitat) can be maintained in zoos, acting as “arks” or reservoir populations (Rabb, 1994). Global captive breeding programs of such populations for reintroduction into their natural habitat have played a key role in the recovery of at least 17 species whose threat level has been reduced in North America, including the black-footed ferret (Howard et al., 2016) and Californian condor (Conde et al., 2011). Furthermore, the global network provided by the WAZA for the transfer of genetic material between zoological institutions assists in maintaining the genetic diversity of otherwise fragmented populations (Bowkett, 2009), retaining maximum heterozygosity and adaptive potential, avoiding inbreeding, and maintaining reproductive health of these populations (Howard et al., 2016) (Ivy, 2016).


Zoos provide unique opportunities for conservation-relevant research, benefitting not only captive populations but also the conservation management of natural populations and ecosystems. Zoos provide easy access to individuals and populations long-term, allowing researchers to attach significant life-history context to data and samples that would be unavailable from wild populations, due to inaccessible environments, cryptic behaviour of some species, and the possible impacts studies pose to animals in the wild (Barongi et al., 2015). Furthermore, the skills and knowledge acquired in terms of small populations management are critical for the protection of threatened populations in their natural ecosystems (Barongi et al., 2015).


Possibly the most important role zoos play in their contribution to conservation is the potential they play for the education and engagement of the public. Human lifestyle choices are driving the current declines seen in populations worldwide, and a revolution of humans’ behaviour is necessary to halt this decline (Barongi et al., 2015). While many people place an innate value on nature, others need to be convinced of the importance of conserving biodiversity. Due to urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities, a statistic that is likely to increase in coming years (Miller et al., 2004). Zoos provide an opportunity to engage urban populations with living organism in a way they would be unable to experience in their day-to-day lives (Rabb, 1994). In fact, more than 700million people visit WAZA affiliated zoos and aquariums yearly, giving zoos a unique opportunity to influence this large audience in pro-environmental and conservation behaviours, to bring about the attitude-shift needed to halt the worldwide decline of species seen today (Barongi et al., 2015). As such, many zoos have incorporated conservation messages in signs, presentations and campaigns situated around their facilities in order to engage visitors, and encourage their support of conservation goals (Barongi et al., 2015).


A wide range of conservation actions are required to halt the ongoing extreme rate of biodiversity decline seen throughout the world today. Here zoological institutions play an important role, providing reservoir populations and allowing for captive breeding programs, while also engaging the public in conservation projects and pro-environmental behaviours. Furthermore, they provide access to individuals for research purposes that may be otherwise unattainable from wild populations.





Barongi, R., Fisken, F.A., Parker, M. & Gusset, M. (eds) (2015). Committing to Conservation: the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Gland, Switzerland: WAZA.


Bowkett, A.E. (2009). Recent Captive-Breeding Proposals and the Return of the Ark Concept to Global Species Conservation. Conservation Biology, Vol 23., no. 3, pp. 773-776.


Conde, D.A., Colchero, F., Jones, O.R., & Scheuerlein, A. (2011). An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science, Vol. 331, no. 6023, pp. 1390-1391.


Howard, J.G., Lynch, C., Santymire, R.M., Marinari, P.E. & Wildt, D.E. (2016). Recovery of gene diversity using long-term cryopreserved spermatozoa and artificial insemination in the endangered black-footed ferret. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 102-111.


Ivy, J.A. (2016). Ameliorating the loss of genetic diversity in captive wildlife populations. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 112-113.


Miller, B., Conway, W., Reading, R.P., Wemmer, C., Wildt, D., Kleiman, D., Monfort, S., Rabinowitz, A., Armstrong, B. & Hutchins, M. (2004). Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museums. Conservation Biology, Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 86-93.


Whitworth, A.W. (2012). An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendance in UK Zoos. PLoS One, Vol. 7, no. 1, e29839.


Rabb, G.B. (1994). The Changing Roles of Zoological Parks in Conserving Biological Diversity. American Zoologist, Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 159-164.


WWF. (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.


Kakapo conservation – grasping at straws or crowdfunding conservation icon?

By Hannah Graham-Cox

The ever-increasing human population is pushing more and more species towards the brink of extinction. With over 600 endangered species, New Zealand is struggling to prioritise ever decreasing funds from a stretched Department of Conservation (Kirk, 2015). So, how are these tough decisions reached? Many empirical methods have been used to assess whether a species is ‘worth’ conservation intervention. Some are simple and straightforward equations, while some are very convoluted involving many different variables. A novel term coming to the forefront as we realise that not all species can be saved, is triage. Triage in this sense, is the process of prioritising conservation activities; allocating scant resources to achieve maximum conservation returns (Bottrill et al., 2008).

Kakapo are an example of a species that may be designated a ‘lost cause’ if the triage approach were implemented by DOC. This nocturnal, flightless, extremely vulnerable bird was decimated by the combined efforts of human and invasive mammal predation, helped along by habitat loss. Now listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ by the IUCN red list, the only known kakapo are managed on pest free islands (Clout & Merton, 1998).

The history of kakapo is a sad and altogether too familiar one. Once, you could supposedly, “shake six from a single tutu bush” (Langton, 2000, p. 250). But following the arrival of humans and our mammalian co-invaders, the entire species was reduced to 51 individuals by 1995 (Ratley, 2014; Harrison & Moorhouse, n.d.). Helped along by modern technology and intensive management, the population has gradually climbed to just under 160 (News and updates from the Kākāpō Recovery Team, 2016). Kakapo have a limited role in ecosystem functioning mainly through vegetation, root and rhizome removal as well as contributing to seed dispersal through frugivory – mostly of rimu fruit (Clout & Hay, 1989; Gibbs, 2007; Atkinson & Merton, 2006). I have evaluated the general considerations when discussing the value of conserving a critically endangered species using kakapo as an example.

Role as flagship species

Flagship species are enigmatic or charismatic species which act as an ambassador for conservation in a given area or globally. Additional funds raised in the protection of this species may be allocated to other causes or conservation action, thus flagship species are often crucial for conservation (Simberloff, 1998; Bennett, Maloney, & Possingham, 2015). kakapo are what may be termed ‘high risk attention grabbers’ – they are a high profile species at great risk of extinction without immediate intervention. In order for species such as this to maintain public sympathy, results of conservation need to be rapid and tangible; for example, the positive response of kakapo to supplementary feeding in 1990-1991 which resulted in a significant population increase (Towns & Williams, 1993). Thus, it has been relatively straightforward to encourage funding from the general public and large corporations for Kakapo. The run-off effects of kakapo recovery include pest eradication and habitat restoration which benefits other species (Axed fund raises questions, 2012). Fortunately for kakapo, they are also charming and cheeky. A prime example of this is the ambassador for kakapo, Sirocco. Sirocco travels the country raising awareness and funds for the conservation of his species. Due to intensive hand rearing (he was the first male to be hand raised and they had not yet perfected avoiding human imprinting), it was realised that Sirocco had imprinted on humans and would not be a successful breeding bird but could make an excellent ‘public face’ for kakapo conservation (Sirocco, n.d.). After a botched attempt at mating with zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head was filmed and put on youtube, Sirocco shot to international fame. In 2011, two years after the infamous incident, 2000 people pre-ordered tickets to see Sirocco in Zealandia, raising funds for the sanctuary (Sirocco, n.d.).

Simply searching for ‘kakapo crowdfunding’ in Google brings up several campaigns raising funds for kakapo conservation. One example of this successfully raised the full goal of $45,400 which will go towards the kakapo 125 project which is described in the ‘Genetic Considerations’ section (Iorns, et al., 2016).

Endemism and phylogenetic uniqueness

An endemic species is found nowhere else on earth, kakapo are an example of such a species. They are described as  ‘phylogenetically unique’ as they have been evolving in isolation from other related species for millions of years. Much value is placed upon those species which are rare or unique, and an increasing number of management programs prioritise these species. An example of this is the EDGE programme, launched by the Zoological Society of London, which stands for ‘Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered’ and prioritises conservation efforts on those species which are phylogenetically distinct as well as rare. As the only member of the subfamily Strigopinae, and being one of the world’s most endangered birds, kakapo rate very highly in the EDGE ranking system (EDGE : Bird Species Information – Kakapo, (n.d.).

Intrinsic value

The concept of the inherent value of nature can be traced back to Soulé who states that: ‘biotic diversity has intrinsic value irrespective of its instrumental or utilitarian value’ (Soulé, 1985). Thus in themselves, kakapo, evolving in seclusion for millennia, have value. Humans are also sentimental creatures whose dualism of being a part of nature, yet remaining distinct from it has resulted in feelings of guardianship towards nature (Bromley, 2013). The Māori term for this is kaitiakitanga which, through the partnership with Ngai Tahu and honoring Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities, is a core component of the The Conservation Act 1987 (Kawharu, 2000; Treaty of Waitangi Responsibilities, n.d.). Described as a unique, amusing, and beautiful, kakapo are not a difficult species to love either. In the words of Douglas Adams: “The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be alright” (Adams & Carwardine, 2009).

Labour intensive

All known kakapo are heavily monitored on three offshore islands: Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), Anchor Island and Hauturu o Toi (Little Barrier Island). Listed in Table 1. are tasks the Kakapo Recovery team, made up of ten full-time Department of Conservation staff, perform in order to help boost the kakapo population.


What this involves

Supplementary feeding

Food supplied to the ‘wild’ kakapo must be expertly adjusted: too little food and the kakapo may not breed at all or the female may lay few eggs, too much food and the females may produce too many male offspring.

Ongoing predator control

All pests (mostly kiore or Pacific rat) exterminated from the three islands which kakapo have been removed to. Anchor island is still prone to stoat invasions as it is within swimming distance of the mainland, so maintenance must be ongoing on this island.

Artificial insemination

It was found that females who have mated more than once in a breeding cycle produce more fertile eggs than those that only mate once. The team remove sperm from selected males (often those with rare genes or who haven’t had many offspring) and using it to simulate a mating event with a female who has already been mated with in that breeding cycle.

Incubation and hand rearing of chicks

41% of the current kakapo population have been hand raised. This is an intensive process as the egg requires constant, specialised care. Chicks are returned to the wild at 4 months and have a survival rate of 91%.


Each kakapo has a smart transmitter attached to it, sending out data about the health of the bird as well as nesting and mating information. If a nest is established, the kakapo team have rostered ‘night-shifts’ where they guard the eggs or chicks for several months while the female is feeding.

Health checks

Full check-up of the bird is performed including: weighing, taking blood samples, checking the transmitter and removing parasites. This occurs yearly for adult birds, daily for nestlings and every 2-6 weeks for chicks under two years old.

Table 1. Shows the methods through which the Kakapo Recovery Team is attempting to grow the current kakapo population. Adapted from “In the wild” (n.d.).


Kakapo conservation carries a hefty price tag. While finding exact figures of funds raised and tracing their use in kakapo conservation is difficult, in 1990 DOC entered into a partnership with Rio Tinto, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd and Forest & Bird. This partnership had raised $3.5 million as of 2010 before Rio Tinto dropped out in 2012 (Guyton & Deal, 2010; Axed fund raises questions, 2012). Due to the very ‘hands on’ approach of their recovery detailed above, every cent of that $3.5 million is vital. Much of the rest of the Kakapo Recovery Team’s funding comes from companies such as Meridian Energy, who have recently agreed to a three year partnership assisting the kakapo recovery fund (A Plan for the Future, n.d.). But three years in the grand scheme of kakapo conservation is not long at all –  the long term goal of kakapo conservation is “To restore the mauri (life-force) of kākāpō by having at least 150 adult females” (A Plan for the Future, n.d.). With the current population of less than 160 individuals in total, and incredibly slow and irregular breeding cycles, this could take several decades. As described in the ‘Role as Flagship Species’ section above, crowdfunding is a more recent method for the Kakapo Recovery Group to raise funds for conservation. As is their ‘Adopt a Kakapo’ concept where members of the public can pay $100-500 to ‘adopt’ one of 13 birds currently available on their website (http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/adopt-a-kakapo/).

Genetic Diversity

A species can be described as ‘genetically depauperate’ if it has low genetic diversity compromising its longevity as a species. Genetic diversity in the kakapo population is extremely low after experiencing such a severe bottleneck when the population was reduced to only 51 individuals. All but one of the population’s founders (Richard Henry: the only male from the Fiordland population to produce offspring) came from the same population. Described as a ‘ticking time bomb’, inbreeding depression is the increased likelihood of extinction and results when there is a sustained level of inbreeding due to low population numbers for several generations (Jamieson, Wallis, & Briskie, 2006). Further loss of genetic diversity is being actively managed by DOC through preventing closely related individuals from mating and via a programme termed the kakapo 125 project which aims to sequence the genome of all known living kakapo (Projects – Genome Sequencing – Kakapo, n.d.). Kuia (pictured below), the only daughter of Richard Henry, will be crucial for maintaining diversity in the population. This is because all other kakapo are from a Stuart Island population which had already been isolated prior to human settlement of New Zealand (White et al., 2015a). Despite the efforts already taken, the effects of inbreeding depression are already visible in the current kakapo population and are listed in Table 2.

Kuia, Richard Henry’s daughter, nesting (Thompson, 2016).

Symptom of inbreeding depression

Effect on a population

Evidence of this occurring in the kakapo population

Low fertility High number of infertile eggs or high risk of miscarriage (in mammal populations)

40% of all eggs laid since 1985 have been infertile (average parrot infertility is around 10-15%) (Clout & Merton, 1998; Artificial insemination, n.d.).

Low hatch or chick survival rates

High chick mortality, low recruitment (chicks surviving to adulthood and supplementing the population)

20% of embryos dying early in development (Artificial insemination, n.d.)
Reduced resistance to disease, predation, environmental stress Increased risk of extinction through predation, disease, parasite infection, environmental stress or events (earthquakes, floods etc.)

There are currently fears that exudative cloacitis, a bacterial disease which results in infected birds being unable to breed, may become a serious issue in kakapo populations due to reduced fitness (evolutionary longevity) through low genetic diversity (White, et al., 2015b).

Table 2. Showing the symptoms of inbreeding depression, their effects on populations (or species) and the evidence of this observed in the kakapo population.


It is well documented that humans value rarity, but has conservation reached the stage where we no longer have the luxury of conserving species just because we find them charming and charismatic? Or are species such as kakapo still contributing to conservation funding enough as flagship species that it outweighs their lack of ecosystem functioning? Although often seen as pernicious and fatalistic, the triage approach to conservation has its groundings in prioritisation of increasingly limited resources (Towns & Williams, 1993). With budget cuts to the Department of Conservation occurring almost yearly, we need to have systems in place which will mean that these species not only have funding now, but ongoing – and a department to ensure habitat enrichment & pest control persists. I am of the opinion that species such as the kakapo deserve to be protected purely for their own sake. They represent millennia of evolution and their naivety and fragility despite this are endearing factors alone. Perhaps none could sum this up as well as the legendary Don Merton (pictured below) who has been instrumental in their rescue: “They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder but what we do have is something that is far, far older. No-one else has kiwi, no-one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out.” Sentimental reasons aside, kakapo populations have increased by more than 200% since the 51 recorded in 1995 (Plumb, 2016). If this trajectory is maintained, funds will continue to be raised and the future of kakapo will be more secure.

Chris Smuts-Kennedy, John Cheyne and Don Merton with Mandy the dog. The kakapo is Jill, the second male captured in the Esperance Valley, Fiordland, 1974 (Department of Conservation, 1974).


A Plan for the Future. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/a-plan-for-the-future/

Adams, D., & Carwardine, M. (2009). Last chance to see. London: Arrow Books.

Artificial insemination. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/artificial-insemination/

Atkinson, I. A. E., Merton, D.V. (2006). Habitat and diet of kakapo (Strigops habroptilis) in the Esperance Valley, Fiordland, New Zealand. Notornis. 53;37–54.

Axed fund raises questions. (2012, September). Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/7716027/The-commercialisation-of-conservation

Bennett, J. R., Maloney, R., & Possingham, H. P. (2015). Biodiversity gains from efficient use of private sponsorship for flagship species conservation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1805), 20142693.

Bottrill, M. C., Joseph, L. N., Carwardine, J., Bode, M., Cook, C., Game, E. T., … & Pressey, R. L. (2008). Is conservation triage just smart decision making?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(12), 649-654.

Bromley, A. (2013). A Part of Nature or Apart from Nature? New Professors Explore Human Responses to the Environment. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://news.virginia.edu/content/part-nature-or-apart-nature-new-professors-explore-human-responses-environment

Clout, M. N., & Hay, J. R. (1989). The importance of birds as browsers, pollinators and seed dispersers in New Zealand forests. New Zealand journal of ecology, 27-33.

Clout, M. N., & Merton, D. V. (1998). Saving the Kakapo: the conservation of the world’s most peculiar parrot. Bird Conservation International, 8(03), 281-296.

EDGE : Bird Species Information – Kakapo. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.edgeofexistence.org/birds/species_info.php?id=1946

Gibbs, G. (2007). Ghosts of Gondwana; The history of life in New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing.

Guyton, S., & Deal, J. (2010). Christmas comes early for kakapo. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.tbfree.org.nz/christmas-comes-early-for-kakapo.aspx

Harrison, M., & Moorhouse, R. (n.d.). Kakapo (Strigops habroptila). Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://www.edgeofexistence.org/birds/species_info.php?id=1946

In the wild. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/in-the-wild/

Iorns, D., Digby, A., Robertson, B., & Howard, J. (2016). Sequencing the genomes of all known kākāpō. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from https://experiment.com/projects/sequencing-the-genomes-of-all-known-kakapo?s=discover

Jamieson, I. G., Wallis, G. P., & Briskie, J. V. (2006). Inbreeding and endangered species management: is New Zealand out of step with the rest of the world?. Conservation Biology, 20(1), 38-47.

Kawharu, M. (2000). Kaitiakitanga: a Maori anthropological perspective of the Maori socio-environmental ethic of resource management. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 109(4), 349-370.

Kirk, S. (2015). No recovery plan to bring 600 native species back from brink of extinction. Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/69920422/no-recovery-plan-to-bring-600-native-species-back-from-brink-of-extinction

Langton, G. (2000). Mr Explorer Douglas John Pascoe’s New Zealand Classic [Revised by Langton, G.]. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press, p. 250.

News and updates from the Kākāpō Recovery Team. (2016, November). Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://createsend.com/t/i-35D4E98116C3A980

Plumb, S. (2016). Critically endangered kakapo on the increase – National – NZ Herald News. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11754390

Projects – Genome Sequencing – Kakapo. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://www.geneticrescue.science/projects/genome-sequencing/kakapo

Ratley, N. (2014, July). Back from the brink of extinction. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/news/features/10313116/Boom-A-kakapo-in-the-night

Sirocco. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/sirocco/

Simberloff, D. (1998). Flagships, umbrellas, and keystones: is single-species management passé in the landscape era?. Biological conservation, 83(3), 247-257.

Soulé, M.E. (1985). What is conservation biology? Bioscience, 35, pp. 727–734

Towns, D. R., & Williams, M. (1993). Single species conservation in New Zealand: towards a redefined conceptual approach. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 23(2), 61-78.

Treaty of Waitangi Responsibilities. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/about-us/our-policies-and-plans/conservation-general-policy/2-treaty-of-waitangi-responsibilities/

White, D. J., Hall, R. J., Jakob-Hoff, R., Wang, J., Jackson, B., & Tompkins, D. M. (2015a). Exudative cloacitis in the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) potentially linked to Escherichia coli infection. New Zealand veterinary journal, 63(3), 167-170.

White, K. L., Eason, D. K., Jamieson, I. G., & Robertson, B. C. (2015b). Evidence of inbreeding depression in the critically endangered parrot, the kakapo. Animal Conservation, 18(4), 341-347.


Title image: De Roy, T. (n.d.). Kakapo [Photograph]. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://www.islandconservation.org/kakapo-population-gets-a-much-needed-boost/

Department of Conservation (1974). Chris Smuts-Kennedy, John Cheyne and Don Merton with Mandy the dog and Jill the kakapo [Photograph]. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/newsletters/behind-the-scenes/archived-newsletters/spring-2014/

Thompson, T. (2016). Kuia, Richard Henry’s daughter, nesting [Photograph]. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://www.islandconservation.org/kakapo-population-gets-a-much-needed-boost/

Introducing Exotic Dung Beetles to New Zealand

By Laura Malin-Curry

I remember driving through the country 10 years ago complaining to my grandfather how boring farms were to look at. My grandfather then replied that “that boring farm consists a dynamic relationship, where the sun provides the grass energy to grow, which then feeds the cows that in turn feed us”. Farms are novel ecosystems, built to sustain human development and growth. Globally, agriculture covers around 40% of terrestrial land area1. Locally, agriculture accounts for two-thirds of New Zealand’s exports, valued over $14.8 billion2.

As New Zealand’s economy is largely built around agriculture, maintaining and improving agricultural productivity is a primary goal for most farmers3. Currently, New Zealand native, forest dwelling, dung beetles are maladaptive to deal with pastoral dung. Resulting in dung limiting the amount of pastoral land available for grazing, thus adversely affecting the productivity of a farm3. To mitigate pastoral dung the Dung Beetle Release strategy Group aim to release 11 additional species of dung beetles into New Zealand to enhance the sustainable production of farms3.

The introduction of dung beetles into New Zealand pasture ecosystems has been in consideration for over 40 years8. However, movement took off in 2008 after the establishment of the Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group by a group of farmers and interested investors3. For the Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group to receive permission and funding to release exotic dung beetles, they had to provide information that 1- the dung beetles will not pose a threat to New Zealand native ecosystems and 2- that introducing dung beetles will be economically viable9.

Approximately $600,000 was invested into ensuring the safety of New Zealand ecosystem health upon releasing dung beetles3. And in 2011 the Environmental Protection Authority approved the release for 11 species9. In February 2014 the Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group completed a total of 74 dung beetle releases over 7 regions3. It is still too early to understand the impact that introduced dung beetles have on New Zealand’s agriculture.

Numerous countries are already benefiting from introducing dung beetles onto their pastoral land, such as Australia, America and Brazil3. These successful introductions give New Zealand a good indication towards the benefits that dung beetles will have on New Zealand. These benefits include; increasing farms productivity3, less greenhouse gas emissions7, reduction of livestock being infested with parasitic worms6 and the clearing up of New Zealand waterways9.

Releasing dung beetles into New Zealand to compliment, and enhance a novel ecosystem is not directly considered restoration. However, non-direct effects of dung beetles, like clearing up our waterways9, can be. The release will also positively affect our understandings in introducing species outside of their natural range. Adding to the tool box of conservation, resulting in better informed decision makings around the purposeful movement of a species outside of their native range.

Even though farms are artificial ecosystem composed of exotic species, I believe it is in New Zealand’s best environmental9 and economic interest2 to release exotic dung beetles to mitigate the effect of pastoral dung. Dung beetles are the missing link in our agricultural ecosystem, complimenting exotic stock life. Benefits of dung beetle release have already been seen in other countries3. Dung beetle release is well researched and will positively affect our agriculture. Soon enough we will see these exotic dung beetles as an ingrained vital component to our agricultural ecosystems.




  1. FAO stat, 2010, FAO stat, http://faostat.fao.org/site/339/default.aspx(2010) (Accessed March 2017)
  2. Sarah Brazil, ed. (2008).New Zealand Official Yearbook. Statistics New Zealand. p. 357. ISBN 978-1-86953-717-3. The export figure includes agriculture, horticulture and forestry.
  3. Dung Beetle Release Strategory Group. (2017, March 20). Dung Beetles in New Zealand. Retrieved from Dung Beetle: http://dungbeetle.org.nz/orders/
  4. Department of Conservation. (2017, March 25). Predator Free New Zealand 2050 to be a massive team effort. Retrieved from the Department of Conservation: http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2016/predator-free-nz-2050-to-be-a-massive-team-effort/
  5. King, C. (1984).Immigrant killers: Introduced predators and the conservation of birds in New Zealand / Carolyn King. Auckland, N.Z.: Oxford University Press.
  6. Nichols, Spector, Louzada, Larsen, Amezquita, & Favila. (2008). Ecological functions and ecosystem services provided by Scarabaeinae dung beetles.Biological Conservation, 141(6), 1461-1474.
  7. Slade, Eleanor M., Riutta, Terhi, Roslin, Tomas, & Tuomisto, Hanna L. (2016). The Role of Dung Beetles in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Cattle Farming.Scientific Reports, 6, Scientific Reports, 2016, Vol.6.
  8. Hughes, R. (1975). Introduced Dung Beetles and Australian Pasture Ecosystems. Papers Presented At A Symposium During The Meeting Of The Australia and New Zealand Association For The Advancement Of Science At Canberra In January 1975.The Journal of Applied Ecology, 12(3), 819-837.
  9. Environmental Protection Authority. (2017, May 1). The Dung Beetle Decision. Retrieved from Environmental Protection Authority: http://www.epa.govt.nz/new-organisms/popular-no-topics/dungbeetles/Pages/decision.aspx



The importance of value in species prioritisation – a holistic approach to the problem.

By Harry Stephens


Discussion surrounding the ‘Noah’s Ark Problem’ (Weitzman 1998, Perry 2010, Small 2011) – a parable for conservation triage, has received heightened attention in recent years. This corresponds to an accelerated increase in species loss worldwide and subsequent costs associated with protecting many that are threatened (Butchart et al 2010). In conservation, ‘triage’ is the prioritisation of limited resources to maximise returns, relative to the goals, under a constrained budget (Bottrill et al 2008). Practically, it entails treating the ‘most valuable’ first, then dedicating fewer resources or abandoning the ‘less valuable’. The problem lies in taking values from an array of professional backgrounds, then determining comprehensive conservation objectives and management practices from these. Humans differ in their interest and attitude toward nature and naturally, approaches will be conflicting.

Obtained from http://framingpainting.com/UploadPic/2010/big/Noah%27s%20ark.jpg

A traditional Noah’s ark scene from which modern day triage is based. Obtained from http://framingpainting.com/UploadPic/2010/big/Noah%27s%20ark.jpg.

The meaning of ‘value’

Fundamental to triage is recognition that scarce resources should not be wasted on the severely injured as they are unlikely to recover – we have to set priorities based on economic, ecological and aesthetic factors (Small 2011, Arponen 2012). There is not ‘one fits all’ criterion to determine where resources are allotted, as the definition of ‘conservation benefit’ depends on a various set of human values and beliefs. For example, the conservation scientist’s ‘value’ of a species generally refers to ecological or functional importance and is the key factor in prioritisation (Perry 2010). However, politicians may view a species based on economics, public expectation or aesthetics, sometimes dividing scientists and policy makers (Wittmer et al 2013). This has been observed in Australia and New Zealand, with the Office of Environment and Heritage and DOC respectively, demonstrating the difficulty in establishing an appropriate basis for decision-making around threatened species (Kilham and Reinecke 2015).

Science alone cannot dictate decision-making

Often, it has been suggested that prioritisation is not a scientific matter; rather it depends on what is valued (Arponen 2012). Furthermore, the fact that most funding for conservation comes from public sources (AEDA 2012), justifies people having more input into triage style decisions. Scientific research alone cannot be a robust foundation on which to implement conservation decisions, as it is based on imperfect information in a dynamic environment and thus, will always be questioned by political, economic and public bodies (Marris 2007, Kilham and Reinecke 2015). There is also uncertainty regarding species biology and population dynamics (Marris 2007, McDonald-Madden et al 2008, Arponen 2012), which has associated ecological risks like species interaction disruptions if science was to ‘get it wrong’. Even the most thoroughly studied organisms like Drosophila spp. have only been observed over a relatively short evolutionary time and there is still a lot to learn; the influence of a changing climate means that the cost and benefits of preserving species is also changing (Arponen 2012).

Species appeal and people power

Humans are programmed to like certain beautiful or decorative features of nature like flowers, fur, feathers and antlers (Small 2012). The idea of using charismatic or flagship species bearing these appealing characteristics to support other projects has received little acknowledgement from the scientific community (Andelman and Fagan 2000, Small 2012). A study by Brambilla et al (2013) on Italian bird species even suggested that conservation based on appeal could see species more susceptible to human influence from an Anthropogenic Allee Effect, exacerbating their threatened status.

However, species appeal may be the most effective driver in generating conservation dollars. Flagship, iconic and charismatic species like Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), Californian Condors (Gymnogyps californiacus) and many large, African mammals may not have as much of a perceived value ecologically, but their appeal produces revenue from tourism and hunting, among other means (Arponen 2012). They also serve as highly visible examples of global conservation, and the public is willing to donate toward their management (Clough 2010, Small 2011). Indirectly, they are important for education and raising awareness which together increase the value of ecosystems and assist in funding projects for their more ecologically beneficial relatives (Perry 2010, Bennett et al 2015).


Just as Noah was limited by space aboard his Ark, decision makers are limited in the amount of biodiversity they can apply resources to. The ultimate objective is to preserve biodiversity, though the approach needs to equally recognize the biological, social and economic elements that reflect ideas of the involved parties. Tools like the Project Prioritisation Protocol (PPP) (Joseph et al 2008, Kilham and Reinecke 2015) are widely used and integrate these aspects based on trade-offs of ecological benefit, cost, success and species value resulting in a rank-ordered list of management actions. Inclusive tools such as the PPP are likely to become more common, as subjective and value-driven opinions concerning priority setting cannot be formed without unbiased consideration.


Andelman, S. J. and Fagan, W. F. 2000. Umbrellas and Flagships: Efficient Conservation Surrogates or Expensive Mistakes? National Academy of Sciences. (97) 11:5954-5959.

Applied Environmental Decision Analysis research hub (AEDA), 2012, On triage, public values and in­formed debate. Decision Point, No.65, p. 4.

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Bennett JR, Maloney R, Possingham HP. 2015 Biodiversity gains from efficient use of private sponsorship for flagship species conservation. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20142693

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Brambilla, M., Gustin, M., Celada, C. 2013. Species appeal predicts conservation status. Biological Conservation 160:209-213.

Butchart, S.H.M., Walpole, M., Collen, B., van Strien, A., Scharlemann, J.P.W., Almond, R.E.A., Baillie, J.E.M., Bomhard, B., Brown, C., Bruno, J., Carpenter, K.E., Carr, G.M., Chanson, J., Chenery, A.M., Csirke, J., Davidson, N.C., Dentener, F., Foster, M., Galli, A., Galloway, J.N., Genovesi, P., Gregory, R.D., Hockings, M., Kapos, V., Lamarque, J.-F., Leverington, F., Loh, J., McGeoch, M.A., McRae, L., Minasyan, A.,

Hernández Morcillo, M., Oldfield, T.E.E., Pauly, D., Quader, S., Revenga, C., John, R., Sauer, J.R., Skolnik, B., Spear, D., Stanwell-Smith, D., Stuart, S.N., Symes, A., Tierney, M., Tyrrell, T.D., Vié, J.-C., Watson, R., 2010. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164–1168.

Clough, P., 2010. Realistic valuations of our clean green assets. New Zealand Institute of Economic Res. NZIER 19/2010.

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McDonald-Madden, E., Baxter, P. W. J., Possingham, H. P. 2008. Making robust decisions for conservation with restricted money and knowledge. Journal of Applied Ecology, 45, 1630–1638

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Wittmer, H. U., Serrouya, R., Elbroch, M. and Marshall, A., J. 2013. Conservation strategies for species affected by apparent competition. Conservation Biology. 27:2. 254-260.

Novel ecosystems Concept: Synthesis of existing currents of thoughts, and when to consider it.

By Jeff Balland

The recent concept of novel ecosystems has aroused many debates. Novel ecosystems can be defined as new systems where new species combinations and functions that have never interacted historically, occur irreversibly and sustainably (Morse et al. 2014), due to anthropogenic activities, species introduction and climate change (Hobbs et al. 2006; Hobbs et al. 2009). The stage between an ecosystem and a novel ecosystem is called “hybrid ecosystem”, and can be defined by a changing system where a return to previous conditions is still possible before it reaches a tipping point (see Hobbs et al. 2013). Almost 12 years after its introduction (see also Chapin & Starfield 2005), two sides are opposed, whether restoration ecologists should integrate the concept of novel ecosystems into practice or not. I attempt to expose and criticize both of them to see what should be retained about this issue.

Embracing the concept

The proponents of this approach argue that it is more relevant to adapt to climate change, and help ecosystems to keep their functions and services when their communities are unbalanced by changing conditions.  As most of existing ecosystems are concerned by changes, “novel ecosystems constitute the new normal” (Marris 2010).

As climate change affects species ranges, migrations and invasions (Parmesan 2006) and because non-indigenous species introduction is one of the biggest causes of native communities changes (natives can be excluded by losing competition) (Clavero & Garcia-Berthou 2005), promoting novel ecosystem management is to say tolerating invasive species (Rodriguez  2006). Indeed, invasive species removal has a real cost for governances. For instance, the removal costs to USA more than 22 billion dollars per year for all invasive species (Pimentel et al. 2005). Is Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) removal compulsory? Many studies showed that sometimes, removing those species could have unexpected negative impacts on native species and ecosystems so that recovery of native species after their removal is not allowed (see Zavaleta et al. 2001; Ewel & Putz 2004): some INNS have even been described as keystone and engineer species (species playing a crucial role in the ecosystem) (Rodriguez 2006; Sousa & Gutiérrez 2009). For example, an invasive tree in Puerto Rico allows some native plants to settle where there were not able before (Lugo 2004). Considering this, exotic species should not be neglected just because they are non-native (Davis et al. 2011).

Figure 1. The Hamunara springs in New Zealand, where the Coastal Redwood is naturalized and provides useful ecosystem services in what can be considered as a a novel ecosystem. Credits: N.Y. Chan

By the way, the new concept of assisted migration (translocation of species threatened by climate change into more suitable locations), emerging as a solution to face environmental changes, will permit the creation of novel ecosystems in the areas where species are voluntary introduced (Minteer & Collins, 2010).

Finally, the novel ecosystems approach may allow improving quality of ecosystem services in exploited ecosystems such as plantation forestry or agriculture. In their study, Smaill et al.(2014) showed that the Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens matched all the considerations of New-Zealand foresters and could deliver better ecosystem services than the actual most exploited species (Pinus radiata). By the way, the Coastal Redwood is already naturalized in some part of the country (Figure 1).


Yet, many scientists strongly disagree with the novel ecosystems concept. In their critique, Murcia et al.(2014) pointed several oversights of such an approach. First, assuming novel ecosystems are “the new normal” is denying successful stories of restoration and ignoring that many ecosystems are well-preserved. Secondly, it is argued that species responses to climate change are unpredictable on a local or regional scale (the usual restoration scales). Furthermore the thresholds of irreversibility in species combination, namely the tipping points determining whether a hybrid ecosystem may recover to the ancestral one or evolve toward a novel ecosystem, are still difficult if not impossible  to identify (Aronson et al. 2014). According to the detractors, such a concept could provide a “license to disturb” for resource exploitation companies, and may reduce the investment in research and restoration projects because they may become unnecessary, as transformation of ecosystems may be accepted. At last, introducing or managing new species combinations, often including INNS, is not worth taking the risk and the precautionary principle should be applied to avoid any aggravation of ecosystems perturbations.

Integration in management

According to Hobbs et al.(2014), novel ecosystem approach in conservation can also be an alternative to classical restoration. In this paper, the authors made a framework on how decisions about ecosystem management should be taken (Figure 2), struggling between different limitations the managers could have in regards of management goals.

Figure 2. Framework for decision-making in ecosystem management, integrating the novel ecosystems concept. From Hobbs et al. (2014)

However, according to the authors, this framework is theoretic and crucially need further implementation. By the way, decision-making processes may be influenced by the degree of sympathy managers have towards novel ecosystems.


The novel ecosystem concept is a new way of looking at the environment. Integrating it in management practices may allow to use what were threats (for example invasive species) as advantages (ecosystem functioning). It may help to preserve species that are jeopardized by climate change though assisted migration, and ecosystem services of exploited lands may be enhanced by selecting species in regards of their ecological functions.  In my opinion, the concept is not ignoring successful stories of restoration, nor it will provide “licence to disturb”, because novel ecosystems are not worth studying to replace conservation but to provide alternative management. However, I agree some new approaches such as assisted migration are uncertain because of unpredictable species responses (to climate change, to new community compositions, etc.). Likewise, the difficulty of identifying the tipping points in hybrid ecosystem is an obstacle to management decisions. But it is definitely worth putting energy in further investigations, because of all the knowledge about ecosystem functioning the discovery of these thresholds would bring. The concept crucially needs implementation even if the principle of precaution regarding the risks should be considered. That is why I strongly believe the concept should be embraced only as an ultimate alternative, when neither sufficient protection (reserves, protection status for species, conservation programs…) nor classical restoration can be done. In that way, the novel ecosystem approach will only provide good overcomes and exciting discoveries.



Aronson, J., Murcia, C., Kattan, G.H., Moreno-Mateos, D., Dixon, K., Simberloff, D., 2014. The road to confusion is paved with novel ecosystem labels: a reply to Hobbs et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29, 646–647. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.09.011

Murcia, C., Aronson,  J., Kattan, G.H., Moreno-Mateos, D., Dixon, K., Simberloff ,D., 2014. A critique of the “novel ecosystem” concept. Trends Ecol Evol 29, 548–553. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.07.006

Chapin, F.S., Starfield, A.M., 1997. TIME LAGS AND NOVEL ECOSYSTEMS IN RESPONSE TO TRANSIENT CLIMATIC CHANGE IN ARCTIC ALASKA. Climatic Change 35, 449–461. doi:10.1023/A:1005337705025

Clavero, M., García-Berthou, E., 2005. Invasive species are a leading cause of animal extinctions. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20, 110. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2005.01.003

Davis, M.A., Chew, M.K., Hobbs, R.J., Lugo, A.E., Ewel, J.J., Vermeij, G.J., Brown, J.H., Rosenzweig, M.L., Gardener, M.R., Carroll, S.P., Thompson, K., Pickett, S.T.A., Stromberg, J.C., Tredici, P.D., Suding, K.N., Ehrenfeld, J.G., Philip Grime, J., Mascaro, J., Briggs, J.C., 2011. Don’t judge species on their origins. Nature 474, 153–154. doi:10.1038/474153a

Ewel, J.J., Putz, F.E., 2004. A place for alien species in ecosystem restoration. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2, 354–360. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2004)002[0354:APFASI]2.0.CO;2

Hobbs, R.J., Arico, S., Aronson, J., Baron, J.S., Bridgewater, P., Cramer, V.A., Epstein, P.R., Ewel, J.J., Klink, C.A., Lugo, A.E., Norton, D., Ojima, D., Richardson, D.M., Sanderson, E.W., Valladares, F., Vilà, M., Zamora, R., Zobel, M., 2006. Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global Ecology and Biogeography 15, 1–7. doi:10.1111/j.1466-822X.2006.00212.x

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E., Hall, C.M., Bridgewater, P., Chapin, F.S., Ellis, E.C., Ewel, J.J., Hallett, L.M., Harris, J., Hulvey, K.B., Jackson, S.T., Kennedy, P.L., Kueffer, C., Lach, L., Lantz, T.C., Lugo, A.E., Mascaro, J., Murphy, S.D., Nelson, C.R., Perring, M.P., Richardson, D.M., Seastedt, T.R., Standish, R.J., Starzomski, B.M., Suding, K.N., Tognetti, P.M., Yakob, L., Yung, L., 2014. Managing the whole landscape: historical, hybrid, and novel ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12, 557–564. doi:10.1890/130300

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E., Harris, J.A., 2009. Novel ecosystems: implications for conservation and restoration. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24, 599–605. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2009.05.012

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S., Harris, J.A., 2014. Novel ecosystems: concept or inconvenient reality? A response to Murcia et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 29, 645–646. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.09.006

Lugo, A.E., 2004. The outcome of alien tree invasions in Puerto Rico. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2, 265–273. doi:10.1890/1540-9295(2004)002[0265:TOOATI]2.0.CO;2

Marris, E., 2006. Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Recent Climate Change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37, 637–669. doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.37.091305.110100

Marris, E., 2010. The new normal. Conserv. Mag. 11, 13–17

Morse, N.B., Pellissier, P.A., Cianciola, E.N., Brereton, R.L., Sullivan, M.M., Shonka, N.K., Wheeler, T.B., McDowell, W.H., 2014. Novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene: a revision of the novel ecosystem concept for pragmatic applications. Ecology & Society 19, 85–94. doi:10.5751/ES-06192-190212

Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., Morrison, D., 2005. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological Economics, Integrating Ecology and Economics in Control BioinvasionsIEECB S.I. 52, 273–288. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.10.002

Smaill, S.J., Bayne, K.M., Coker, G.W.R., Paul, T.S.H., Clinton, P.W., 2014. The Right Tree for the Job? Perceptions of Species Suitability for the Provision of Ecosystem Services. Environmental Management 53, 783–799. doi:10.1007/s00267-014-0239-5

Sousa, R., Gutiérrez, J.L., Aldridge, D.C., 2009. Non-indigenous invasive bivalves as ecosystem engineers. Biol Invasions 11, 2367–2385. doi:10.1007/s10530-009-9422-7

Truitt, A.M., Granek, E.F., Duveneck, M.J., Goldsmith, K.A., Jordan, M.P., Yazzie, K.C., 2015. What is Novel About Novel Ecosystems: Managing Change in an Ever-Changing World. Environmental Management 55, 1217–1226. doi:10.1007/s00267-015-0465-5

Trap–Neuter–Return: Undermining New Zealand Conservation.


Trap Neuter Return logo. (Retrieved from http://www.ccfaw.org/TNR.html on 1/5/17)

Author: Olivia Carson

In New Zealand, conservation is a crucial tool used to maintain our unique ecosystem. But are our beloved feline friends undoing conservation’s hard work? Cats enjoy preying on some of New Zealand’s endemic species, such as birds like the kiwi, kererū and tui, reptiles like skinks, geckos and tuatara or invertebrates like weta. Statistics show that cats are having an impact on our native fauna, so is it time to revise programs which enable this behaviour to continue?

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a management technique used in New Zealand (NZ) by participating SPCA clinics whereby wild free-roaming cats, of all ages, are being humanely captured, spayed, and health checked. Upon completion, they are returned to their original habitat where their presence is approved, or they are put up for adoption if they are seen fit for domestication (Levy, et al., 2013). Former SPCA National President, Bob Kerridge, and the majority of NZ’s SPCAs support TNR as it aids in the welfare of, “sick, injured, lost, abused or simply abandoned cats” and it leads to an eventual decrease in the wild cat population (Auckland SPCA, 2016). However, this support is rivalled with opposition from The Department of Conservation (DOC) and conservation minister, Maggie Barry, who in 2015 called for the SPCA to stop the programme altogether, claiming it was destructive to native birds (Smith, 2015). Throughout this article the positive and negative implications of TNR will be explored, arguing that from a conservationist’s perspective, this program, along with feral and stray cats need to go.

Cats are categorised by their behavioural differences, whether they are domestic, stray or feral. Domestic cats are those who live with an owner and depend on humans for their care and welfare. A stray cat is one who was once a domesticated animal but has become lost or abandoned and has their needs indirectly supplied to them by humans or their environment. Feral cats are born and raised in the wild and have few of their needs provided by people and tend to live away from centres of human habitation (Farnworth, et al., 2010). One behaviour which these cats share is their instinct to kill, with studies nationwide showing that many of NZ’s endangered species have targets on their backs.


A stray cat trapped in a TNR cage being released after neutering. (Retrieved from http://iowahumanealliance.org/trapneuterrelease on 1/5/17)

The debate on whether cats should be classified as pests is strongly controversial. 48% of households in NZ accommodate at least one cat, showing that us Kiwis have a real love for these furry creatures (Mckay, et al., 2009). DOC, on the other hand, consider cats as pests, due to their negative impacts on our native species (Abbott, 2008). This begs the question, why are programmes such as TNR supporting the release of these homeless and undomesticated cats back into the wild?

There are many reasons to support the use of TNR. In Rome, Italy, a study on a long-term TNR programme showed that cat colonies decreased by up to 24% over a 6-year period, demonstrating that loss of reproductive ability has a marked effect on the reduction of the number of unwanted kittens (Natoli, et al., 2006). Furthermore, by returning the cat to the environment after veterinary attention, it allowed them to continue using their hunting instincts towards decreasing mammalian pest populations. The same methodology can be applied to NZ as mammalian pests, such as mice and rats are also known to feast on New Zealand’s native species (Towns & Broome, 2003). Therefore, it could be reasoned that if cats were removed altogether from the ecosystem, it might experience a decline in native wildlife due to a rise in the rodent population.

The introduction of cats to NZ has seen some unfortunate outcomes for native species, which underwent evolution during a period where mammalian predators were non-existent (Norbury, et al., 2014). Domestic, stray and feral cats have all contributed to the extinction of 40% of NZ endemic birds (Sijbranda, et al., 2016). In 1894, a single cat was able to completely wipe out an entire species of Stephen’s Island Wren, who were thought to be taking refuge from mammalian pests on Stephen’s Island (Galbreath & Brown, 2004). This reinforces how destructive one cat, who may be from a TNR programme can be.


The stomach contents of one stray male cat in Ohakune, New Zealand. (Retrieved from http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2010/cat-nabbed-raiding-the-mothership/ on 1/5/17).

The average cat kills approximately 65 creatures a year (van Heezik, et al., 2010). Rats, one of NZ’s most devastating pests, arguably contribute just as much damage, along with ferrets, stoats, weasels and possums. Both government and territorial authorities use alternatives to TNR to control these predators which meet humane standards for example poison and traps. It could be debated that although a less favourable outcome for cats, instead of the SPCA spending money on neutering and providing medical attention, it could be considered more humane to euthanise. Recognising this will stop cats from having an unloved life on the street and ensures that no native animals will come to their demise in the future.

If TNR was terminated, then continued pest management would be essential. Instead of neutering and releasing trapped stray and feral cats, they would need to be humanely euthanised. Continued management would also benefit the eradication of the other pests which cats may prey on. New Zealand aims to have a pest-free ecosystem by 2050 and the Government, iwis, and regional councils are showing their support to this cause by providing approximately $70 million annually towards predator control (The Department of Conservation, 2014). This sum would continue to benefit pest management if TNR was stopped. There are humane pest control options which could be better advertised to the public (Goodnature and Victor professional traps), which may increase support, reinforcing that we don’t need cat input to sort our pest problem, just people’s support.

The negative consequences of having stray and feral cats in our environment far outweigh the positives. Most cat owners are reasonable people, agreeing that measures such as mandatory microchipping, registration and compulsory neutering, would allow for better care of future stray cats. If people complied with these rules, then stray cats could be returned to their owners. We don’t need to remove our much-loved pets altogether, but our native fauna needs protection too, the ones that define us as a nation, and for this to be achievable, TNR must go. TNR currently undermines conservation practices by allowing destructive animals to continue to roam freely. If it weren’t for cats “most-loved” status, it wouldn’t be an issue, as we don’t see rats being neutered and returned to the wild, do we?


Abbott, I. (2008). The spread of the cat (Felis catus) in Australia: Re-examination of the current conceptual model with additional information. Conservation Science Western Australia, 7, 1-17.

Auckland SPCA (2016). What We Do. Retrieved from Auckland SPCA: https://www.spcaauckland.org.nz/what-we-do/

Farnworth, M., Dye, N., & Keown, N. (2010). The legal status of cats in New Zealand: A perspective on the welfare of companion, stray and feral domestic cats (Felis catus). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 13, 180-188.

Galbreath, R., & Brown, D. (2004). The tale of the lighthouse-keeper’s cat: Discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli). The Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Inc, 51, 193-200.

Levy, J., Gale, D., & Gale, L. (2013). Levy, J. K., Gale, D. W. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222, 42–46.

Mckay, S., Farnworth, M., & Waran, N. (2009). Current attitudes toward, and incidence of, sterilization of cats and dogs by caregivers (owners) in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 12, 331-344.

Natoli, E., Maragliano, L., Cariola, G., Faini, A., Bonanni, R., Cafazzo, S., & Fantini, C. (2006). Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy). Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 77, 180-185.

Norbury, G., Hutcheon, A., Reardon, J., & Daigneault, A. (2014). Pest fencing or pest trapping: A bio-economic analysis of cost-effectiveness. Austral Ecology, 39, 795-807.

Sijbranda, D., Campbell, J., Gartrell, B., & Howe, L. (2016). Avian malaria in introduced, native and endemic New Zealand bird species in a mixed ecosystem. New Zealand Journal of Ecology,, 40(1), 72-79.

Smith, O. (2015). Express. Retrieved from Feral politics: New Zealand’s two-cat policy sparks FUR-ious row. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/582420/New-Zealand-s-Prime-Minister-John-Key-two-cat-policy-controversy

The Department of Conservation. (2014). Predator Free 2050 [Brochure]. New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/our-work/predator-free-2050.pdf

Towns, D., & Broome, K. (2003). From small Maria to massive Campbell: Forty years of rat eradications from New Zealand islands. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 30(4), 377-398.

van Heezik, Y., Smyth, A., Adams, A., & Gordon, J. (2010). Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation, 143(1), 121-130.

Conservation versus Agriculture: Searching for a solution to New Zealand’s land-use conundrum.

By David Munro

In New Zealand, conservation and agriculture are often considered two polar opposites in terms of land management. Conservation aims to restore native biodiversity, something commonly achieved by reverting land from farmland to native bush and encouraging the return of wildlife. Agriculture however, often works against this by actively removing native habitat to make room for pasture for the grazing of introduced livestock. New Zealand policy makers are stuck between a rock and a hard place,

Dairy cattle in Taranaki, New Zealand. Dairy is one of New Zealand’s largest primary industries. Credit: Dave Young.

as on one hand they actively encourage and practice conservation, but also need to support agriculture as it is the backbone of the New Zealand economy. In fact, over half of New Zealand’s total land area is used for the sheep, beef and dairy industries (Statistics NZ, 2012), and the revenue earned from these is the single largest contributor to the New Zealand economy (Walls, 2017). How, then, can agriculture and conservation work together to both achieve their goals if they are currently practiced in such directly opposing ways?


Globally, scientists are now calling for a union of agriculture and conservation. Conservationists are discovering that protecting reserves alone will be insufficient to preserve biodiversity (Garcia et al., 2005). Meanwhile. It has been widely suggested that a solution to the problem of competing land uses is to adopt low-intensity farming where agriculture and conservation are practiced on the same land (Bignal et al., 1996; Matson & Vitousek, 2006). Our frame of thought must shift from viewing agriculture and conservation as two opposing practices, but rather see them together as one integrated land-type which meets both food production and conservation goals.

The two most common features of low-intensity farming are riparian buffer zones and habitat islets. Riparian buffer zones are areas along the margins of waterways which are not used for grazing, and they can take many forms.In New Zealand, riparian buffers often involve having up to 10 metres of native bush planted along each flank of a waterway. This provides habitat for terrestrial species while also reducing soil erosion, preventing leaching of fertilizer into waterways, as well as shading the waterway, improving the water quality for aquatic species (Ryan et al., 2003; Matson et al., 1997; Joy & Death, 2013).

An example of riparian planting in New Zealand. Retrieved from DairyNZ

Habitat islets refer to patches (‘islets’) of native habitat in a sea of pasture. These islets provide habitat for native species, improve surrounding soil quality by depositing leaf litter, and provide shade and shelter for livestock (Beneyas et al., 2008; Erickson et al., 2002). These islets allow for regular agricultural practices to continue around them , while low-intensity farming offers a solution where agriculture can continue over large scales. Low-intensity farming provides benefits for both conservation efforts and agricultural practices, but is not without its downsides.

Small patches of habitat, such as those created by riparian buffer zones and habitat islets, have fundamental differences to large reserves. Some animal species, including many of New Zealand’s native birds, are described as timid to open habitats. This means that they will not inhabit small habitat fragments or dwell near the edge of a forest, and therefore require large forested habitats in which they can roam. Because of this, low-intensity farming may be unsuccessful at conserving a large number of our native species (Green et al., 2005), and may instead favour less timid exotic species. These patches of habitat often also harbour pest species such as rats and possums (Ryan et al., 2003; Beneyas et al., 2008; Matson et al., 1997). The former is of concern to conservation, as it is a predator species for many native birds and insects, while the latter is a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. If these habitat patches harbour possums, then they may be of concern to agricultural practices. The risk of a herd of cattle becoming infected with bovine tuberculosis has been found to be higher the closer the herd is to an area of bush (Porphyre et al., 2008). Areas of low-intensity farming also tend to be less productive than areas of intensive farming, typically due to a lower density of livestock (Green et al., 2005). Because of this, low-intensity farming requires more land to achieve the same levels of production as highly intensive farming. This in turn reduces the amount of land available for the large conservation reserves which are required for the conservation of timid species. It may therefore make sense to maximise the land for conservation by minimising the amount of agriculture area, which can only be achieved by further intensification of agriculture.

Having habitat islets within agriculture is one method of low-intensity agriculture. Retrieved from Bird Life International.

How then should New Zealand approach this land-use conundrum? Low-intensity agriculture not only provides benefits for conservation, but also provides a number of other environmental, economic and productive gains. Costs such as the initial establishment of and pest management within habitat patches and will be outweighed in the long run by the prevention of soil erosion, return of ecosystem services, and by aesthetic and moral value of assisting conservation efforts. Despite the large area of land necessary for low-intensity farming to match the production of high-intensity farming, the benefits outweigh the negatives. This leaves one final question, how can we successfully integrate conservation and agriculture?

Conservationists and farmers frequently butt heads over issues facing New Zealand, and achieving cooperation between these two parties can often be difficult. Harvey et al. (2008) suggests a framework for encouraging farmers to adopt low-intensity practices and to avoid this conflict. The suggestions include:

  1. Using economic tools as incentive for participation, such as subsidising establishment costs,
  2. Improve environmental laws and their enforcement to ensure a baseline level of cooperation,
  3. Strengthen ties between farmers, conservationists and other groups, aligning their goals and encouraging collaboration,
  4. Provide and encourage participation in certification schemes, and
  5. Leverage political support at multiple levels, including local and district council’s as well as centralised government.

While these suggestions provide a good theoretical framework, other studies have suggested that the most important motivating factors for a farmer to partake in conservation practices on their land are to do with the value they place on their land (Ryan et al., 2003; Erickson et al., 2002). This includes wanting to preserve the land and/or nature for future generations, and appearing to be good stewards of the land. Possessing these values made it more likely for farmers to practice conservation than external factors such as economic gain (Ryan et al., 2003). Instilling pride in New Zealand’s natural heritage may become the most useful tool for encouraging the adoption of low-intensity farming in New Zealand’s rural communities.

Low-intensity farming is one of many possible solutions to New Zealand’s competing land-use dilemma. By integrating conservation and agricultural practices on the same land, the benefits of each can still be achieved, albeit in a less comprehensive manner than when the two operate separately. Low-intensity farming may not provide all of the solutions to land-use related problems, but fostering cooperation between conservationists and farmers will go a long way toward reaching a more sustainable future for this country.


Works Cited

Benayas, J. M. R., Bullock, J. M., & Newton, A. C. (2008). Creating woodland islets to reconcile ecological restoration, conservation, and agricultural land use. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6(6), 329-336.

Bignal, E. M., & McCracken, D. I. (1996). Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside. Journal of Applied Ecology, 413-424.

Bird Life International. (2003). Less Favoured Areas and High Nature Value farmland. Retrieved from: http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/less-favoured-areas-and-high-nature-value-farmland

DairyNZ. Retrieved from: https://www.dairynz.co.nz/environment/waterways/

Erickson, D. L., Ryan, R. L., & De Young, R. (2002). Woodlots in the rural landscape: landowner motivations and management attitudes in a Michigan (USA) case study. Landscape and Urban Planning, 58(2), 101-112.

Foley, J. A., DeFries, R., Asner, G. P., Barford, C., Bonan, G., Carpenter, S. R., … & Helkowski, J. H. (2005). Global consequences of land use. Science, 309(5734), 570-574.

Garcia, C. A., Bhagwat, S. A., Ghazoul, J., Nath, C. D., Nanaya, K. M., Kushalappa & Vaast, P. (2010). Biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes: challenges and opportunities of coffee agroforests in the Western Ghats, India. Conservation Biology, 24(2), 479-488.

Green, R. E., Cornell, S. J., Scharlemann, J. P., & Balmford, A. (2005). Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science, 307(5709), 550-555.

Harvey, C. A., Komar, O., Chazdon, R., Ferguson, B. G., Finegan, B., Griffith & Van Breugel, M. (2008). Integrating agricultural landscapes with biodiversity conservation in the Mesoamerican hotspot. Conservation biology, 22(1), 8-15.

Joy, M. K., & Death, R. G. (2013). Freshwater biodiversity. Ecosystem Services In New Zealand. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand.

Matson, P. A., Parton, W. J., Power, A. G., & Swift, M. J. (1997). Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science, 277(5325), 504-509.

Matson, P. A., & Vitousek, P. M. (2006). Agricultural intensification: will land spared from farming be land spared for nature?. Conservation Biology, 20(3), 709-710.

Porphyre, T., Stevenson, M. A., & McKenzie, J. (2008). Risk factors for bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand cattle farms and their relationship with possum control strategies. Preventive veterinary medicine, 86(1), 93-106.

Ryan, R. L., Erickson, D. L., & De Young, R. (2003). Farmers’ motivations for adopting conservation practices along riparian zones in a mid-western agricultural watershed. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(1), 19-37.

Young, D. (2012). Cattle in New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.fauna-flora.org/new-zealands-changing-landscape/taranaki-dairy-farm/