Our Community

Top Posts & Pages

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.


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.



  • Ainsworth, C.H. (2011). Quantifying species abundance trends in the northern gulf of California using local ecological knowledge. Marine and Coastal Fisheries 3(1), 190-218
  • Berkes, F. (2009). Indigenous ways of knowing and the study of environmental change. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 39(4), 151-156
  • Berkes, F. Colding, J. Folke, C. (2000). Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecological Applications 10(5), 1251-1262
  • Bode, M. Watson, J. Iwamura, T. Possingham, H.P. (2008). The cost of conservation. Science 321(5887), 340-340
  • Carter, J. (2010). Displacing indigenous cultural landscapes: the naturalistic gaze at Fraser Island World Heritage Area. Geographical Research 48(4), 398-410
  • Chen, I.C. Hill, J.K. Ohlemuller, R. Roy, D.B. Thomas, C.D. (2011). Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science 333(6045), 1024-1026
  • Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Bruno, J.F. (2010). The impact of climate change on the world’s marine ecosystems. Science 328(5985), 1523-1528
  • Manfredo, M.J. Teel, T.L. Sullivan, L. Dietsch, A.M. (2017). Values, trust, and cultural backlash in conservation governance: the case of wildlife management in the United States. Biological Conservation 214, 303-311
  • Meeussen, L. Agneessens, F. Delvaux, E. Phalet, K. (2018). Ethnic diversity and value sharing: a longitudinal social network perspective on interactive group processes. British Journal of Social Psychology 57(2), 428-447
  • Mombeshora, S. and Le Bel, S. (2009). Parks-people conflicts: the case of Gonarezhou National Park and the Chitsa community in south-east Zimbabwe. Biodiversity and Conservation 18(10), 2601-2623
  • Moore, J. Balmford, A. Allnutt, T. Burgess, N. (2004). Integrating costs into conservation planning across Africa. Biological Conservation 117(3), 343-350
  • Nash, H.C. Wong, M.H.G. Turvey, S.T. (2016). Using local ecological knowledge to determine status and threats of the critically endangered Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) in Hainan, China. Biological Conservation 196, 189-195
  • Rasalato, E. Maginnity, V. Brunnschweiler, J.M. (2010). Using local ecological knowledge to identify shark river habitats in Fiji (South Pacific). Environmental Conservation 37(1), 90-97
  • Raymond, C.M. Fazey, I. Reed, M.S. Stringer, L.C. Robinson, G.M. Evely, A.C. (2010). Integrating local and scientific knowledge for environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management 91(8), 1766-1777
  • Rosenzweig, C. Karoly, D. Vicarelli, M. Neofotis, P. Wu, Q.G. Casassa, G. Menzel, A. Root, T.L. Estrella, N. Seguin, B. Tryjanowski, P. Liu, C.Z. Rawlins, S. Imeson, A. (2008). Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change. Nature 453(7193), 353-U20
  • Turvey, S.T. Fernandez-Secades, C. Nunez-Mino, J.M. Hart, T. Martinez, P. Brocca, J.L. Young, R.P. (2014). Is local ecological knowledge a useful conservation tool for small mammals in a Caribbean multicultural landscape?. Biological Conservation 169, 189-197
  • Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30(6), 1024-1054

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.

Teaching an Old Bird New Tricks: assisting the evolution of native species through selective breeding

Figure 1: A rat preying on a nesting bird 

By Rachel Selwyn

We’ve bred dogs to herd sheep, to point out hunting prey…can we breed NZ native species to fight back against introduced predators? Assisted evolution is a controversial conservation tactic but it’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

Native species on island ecosystems like in New Zealand have evolved for thousands of years without mammalian predators and without the appropriate predator avoidant behaviors1. The arrival of exotic predators like rats, stoats, and possums found the native species defenseless and had catastrophic effects on their populations2-4. In response, New Zealand has undertaken extensive eradication and predator control efforts which have helped species such as the North Island robin5-7.

Unfortunately, predator control has several flaws including the difficulty and high cost of achieving 100% eradication across the whole country8-9, the risk of unintended ecological effects10, questionable ethics11, and the never-ending battle against reintroductions12-13. Eradicating several species across an entire landmass is a massive undertaking especially given the difficulty monitoring international borders sufficiently to prevent reintroduction events. An alternative approach is to help native species adapt to the presence of new predators, through selective breeding, to create a sustainable coexistence of predator and prey.

The underlying issue in New Zealand is the prey naïveté, or lack of antipredator behavior, of native fauna that have not had the opportunity to adapt to the presence of these new predators14. Encouraging evolutionary adaptations to arise in the native fauna through selective breeding provides an alternative solution that does not involve large-scale extermination of an entire class of species.

Figure 2: A graphic depicting the process of selectively breeding a plant species for desired increased plant height.

Humans have used selective breeding for thousands of years, choosing desirable traits in agricultural plant species and domestic animals15. Selective breeding does not just apply to physical characteristics. Domesticated dogs are an example of using this technique to promote desirable behaviors such as pointing in hunting breeds and herding in sheepdogs16. Some conservationists are advocating for selective breeding to be similarly used for wild species to choose adaptive behaviors like predator avoidance to counteract prey naïveté17. Identifying individuals from a population that demonstrate the desired behavior or characteristic and selectively breeding them together increases the prominence of this trait in the population, as seen in Figure 2. Beneficial predator avoidant traits would ordinarily develop over time through natural selection, however, it can take a long time and high levels of predation often wipe out native populations before they have a chance to adapt18.  As humans are responsible for the dramatic scale of invasions around the world, it is our responsibility to help native species adapt to the changes we have provoked.

Some anti-predator traits have begun to arise in some New Zealand species although the frequency of these traits remains too low to effectively protect them. The New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura) has begun decrease parental activity during nesting periods when predators are present in their habitat19. This behavior is believed to be adaptive as high parental activity at a nest can attract predators and lead to higher predation rates. Identifying adaptive behaviors like this would allow conservationists to deliberately breed the individual bellbirds showing this behavior and effectively speed up the process of natural selection.

Selective breeding to modify wild populations has been conducted in the past including with the plains zebra20 and with largemouth bass21. Selective breeding is currently being considered in marine conservation with species of corals and their symbionts. Researchers working to determine the genetic link within heat-tolerant corals hope to promote this trait in coral populations making them more resistant to climate change22-23.

How could we apply this to New Zealand? Kiwis couldn’t realistically be bred to fly away from predators without significantly altering them from a well-loved species. Species like the kiwi could be bred to encourage protective strategies that improve their ability to survive alongside novel predators. Captive breeding programs that are already in place, like those with the kakapo and takahe24, could be supplemented with selective breeding trials. Selective breeding would have to take place amongst all naïve prey simultaneously to avoid predators simply switching to easier less adapted prey25. Assisting evolution in New Zealand species would involve a widespread and costly effort over many years, however, this option provides a definite solution compared to the never-ending fight of eradication efforts. Critics are concerned that selective breeding for a single trait could lead to loss of genetic diversity within the population and magnification of harmful alleles26. While loss of genetic diversity is a risk with captive breeding, continually supplementing breeding efforts with individuals from the larger wild population will minimize this issue. Selective breeding may not succeed equally amongst all species so it is vital that trials are conducted in isolation with predator control maintained in wild populations.

Assisting evolution through selective breeding is a controversial and radical solution to prey naïveté that has the potential to replace predator eradication efforts. This should be conducted alongside predator control initially to provide time for adaptations to persist. There are several risks associated with this approach that merit further investigation, however, the benefit has more weight as successfully assisting native species to coexist alongside introduced predators would be a monumental conservation success. Current predator control efforts will need to continue forever to protect New Zealand’s native species, however, by selectively breeding naïve species to hold their own we can one day achieve ecosystems that can sustain themselves without human intervention.


Works cited:

  1. Bull, P.C., Whitaker, A.H. (1975). The amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Biogeography and Ecology in New Zealand 231-276. Springer, Dordrecht.
  2. Remes, V., Matysiokova, B., Cockburn, A. (2012). Nest predation in New Zealand’s songbirds: Exotic predators, introduced prey and long-term changes in predation risk. Biological Conservation148(1):54-60.
  3. O’Donnell, C.F.J., Clapperton, B.K., Monks, J.M.(2015). Impacts of introduced mammalian predators on indigenous birds of freshwater wetlands in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 39(1):19-33
  4. O’Donnell, C.F.J., Weston, K.A., Monks, J.M. (2017). Impacts of introduced mammalian predators on New Zealand’s Alpine Flora. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 41(1):1-22
  5. Armstrong, D.P.(2016). Population responses of a native bird species to rat control. The Journal of Wildlife Management 81(2):342-346.
  6. Starling-Windhof, A., Massaro, M., Briskie, J. (2011). Differential effects of exotic predator-control on nest success of native and introduced birds in New Zealand. Biological Invasions 13(4):1021-1028
  7. Whitehead, A.L., Edge, K.A., Smart, A.F., Hill, G.S., Willans, M.J. (2008). Large scale predator control improves productivity of rare New Zealand riverine duck. Biological Conservation 141(11):2784-2794.
  8. Anderson, D.P., Gormley, A.M., Ramsey, D.S.L., Nugent, G., Martin, P.A.J., Bosson, M., Livingston, P., Byrom, A.E. (2017). Bio-economic optimisation of surveillance to confirm broadscale eradications of invasive pests and diseases. Biological Invasions 19(10):2869-2884.
  9. Harding, E.K., Doak, D.F., Albertson, J.D. (2002). Evaluating the effectiveness of predator control : the non-native red fox as a case study. Conservation Biology 15(4):1114-1122.
  10. Keller Kopf, R., Nimmo, D.G., Humphries, P., Baumgartner, L.J., Bode, M., Bond, N.R., Byrom, A.E., Cucherousset, J., Keller, R.P., King, A.J., McGinness, H.M., Moyle, P.B., Olden, J.D. (2017). Confronting the risks of large-scale invasive species control. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1
  11. Souther, C.E.(2016). The Cruel Culture of Conservation Country: Non-Native Animals and the Consequences of Predator-Free New Zealand. Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems 26(1):63-119.
  12. Russell, J.C., Brown, P.H., Byrom, A.E.(2015). Predator-free New Zealand: Conservation Country. BioScience 65(5):520-525.
  13. King, C.M., McDonald, R.M., Martin, R.D., Dennis, T.(2009). Why is eradication of invasive mustelids so difficult? Biological Conservation 142(4):806-816.
  14. Sih, A., Bolnick, D.I., Luttbeg, B., Orrock, J.L., Peacor, S.D., Pintor, L.M., Preisser, E., Rehage, J.S., Vonesh, J.R. (2010). Predator-prey naïveté, antipredator behavior, and the ecology of predator invasions. Oikos 119:610-621.
  15. Akey, J.M., Ruhe, A.L., Akey, D.T., Wong, A.K., Connelly, C.F., Madeoy, J., Nicholas, T.J., Neff, M.W. (2010). Tracking footprints of artificial selection in the dog genome. PNAS 107(3):1160-1165.
  16. Akaad, D.A., Gerding, W.M., Gasser, R.B., Epplen, J.T. (2015). Homozygosity mapping and sequencing identify two genes that might contribute to pointing behavior in hunting dogs. Canine Genetics and Epidemiology 2:5.
  17. Moseby, K.E., Blumstein, D.T., Letnic, M. (2015). Harnessing natural selection to tackle the problem of prey naïveté. Evolutionary Applications 9(2):334-343.
  18. Owens, I.P.F., Bennett, P.M. (2000). Ecological basis of extinction risk in birds: Habitat loss versus human persecution and introduced predators. PNAS 97(22):12144-12148.
  19. Massaro, M., Starling-Windhof, A., Briskie, J.V., Martin, T.E. (2008). Introduced Mammalian Predators Induce Behavioral Changes in Parental Care in an Endemic New Zealand Bird. PLoS ONE 3(6):2331.
  20. Harley, E.H., Knight, M.H., Lardner, C., Wooding, B., Gregor, M. (2009). The Quagga project: progress over 20 years of selective breeding. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 39(2):155-163.
  21. Garrett, G. (2002). Behavioral modification of angling vulnerability in Largemouth bass through selective breeding. Black bass: ecology, conservation, and management. American Fisheries Society, Editors: D. P. Philip and M.S. Ridgeway. 387-392.
  22. Baums, I.B. (2008). A restoration genetics guide for coral reef conservation. Molecular Ecology 17(12):2796-2811.
  23. Barshis, D.J., Ladner, J.T., Oliver, T.A., Seneca, F.O., Traylor-Knowles, N., Palumbi, S.R. (2013). Genomic basis for coral resilience to climate change. PNAS 110(4):1387-1392
  24. Clout, M.N., Craig, J.L. (1995). The conservation of critically endangered flightless birds in New Zealand. International Journal of Avian Science 137(s1):181-190.
  25. Kjellander, P., Nordstrom, J. (2003). Cyclic voles, prey switching in red fox, and roe deer dynamics- a test of the alternative prey hypothesis. Oikos 101(2): 338-344.
  26. Miller, P.S. (1995). Selective breeding programs for rare alleles: examples from the przewalski’s horse and California condor pedigrees. Conservation Biology 9(5):12621273.


Image 1: https://thespinoff.co.nz/science/06-05-2017/what-if-the-predator-free-2050-plan-is-actually-a-terrible-idea/

Image 2: https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-selective-breeding



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/

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.