Facing up to the Future of Conservation with Forest & Bird.

This weekend I went to Wellington for the Forest and Bird Conference (called Face up to the Future) where I was on a youth panel called the Nature of Tomorrow.

I started off by making it known just how much I love the Sub-Antarctic Islands. That’s a lot, in case you happen to be the most oblivious person known to man.

Our host, Te Radar asked the audience if they knew where the Sub-Antarctic Islands and a surprisingly small number of people raised their hands (I assumed that I would be preaching to the converted). When asked if they had worked on, been to, or knew about any of the issues going on in the region, there were even fewer.

What made the weekend especially interesting was chatting to a few of the people who are currently involved with (or running) the Our Far South campaign. When he’s not hosting youth discussion panels, making award-winning documentaries, or being an all-round funny guy, Te Radar is a spokesperson for the Our Far South campaign. He’s currently working on a documentary set for release on the 3rd of July, which I cannot wait to see!

Sarah Wilcox & Te Radar on Campbell Island during the Our Far South expedition.

The Sub-Antarctic islands were just a fragment of the thought-provoking discussion we had. The diversity of the panel meant that we were able to touch on a range of subjects such as environmental politics, shark-finning, predator control, water quality, societies dependence on coal, and even the ever-so-controversial theme of intergenerational justice.

And the fun didn’t stop there. The next day we were able to sit in on the rest of the conference where everything from the (always controversial) politics of conservation to Nicola Toki’s talk about Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision for a predator-free New Zealand was covered.

All in all it was an awe-inspiring experience that has set me up for months of energy to ‘get-up-and-go-save-New-Zealand’s-wild-places-and-creatures’. The one thing I find myself questioning is complacency and its relationship to social media. I can’t help but wonder if our generation think that by sharing a post they are saving the world and have found myself questioning myself on how we can get actual involvement from youth rather than clicks.

In saying that, I highly recommend having a look at the twitter feed from the conference, it’s got great quotes, summaries, and general responses to some of the thought-provoking speakers and the conference in general. If you couldn’t make it, you can at least feel like you were there. And if you could, you can refresh your memory of some of the key issues that were raised!

There’s also this article by the lovely Isosbel Ewing that gives a nice summary of what went on at the youth panel discussion.

Look out for this article on the conference in the latest Forest and Bird members magazine.

Thanks a bunch, Forest and Bird! It was great. Just try and stop me from coming along next time!

 

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The Mega-Herbs of Macquarie Island are Back in Bloom!

I feel as though I have been writing about the effect of pest species on the Sub-Antarctic Islands a lot as of late and so when I saw the topic for this blog post, I couldn’t help but share it. Who doesn’t love good news?

ECOS Magazine recently reported that the large-scale operation to eradicate rabbits from Australia’s only Sub-Antarctic Island, Macquarie Island, is already doing good things for its wild inhabitants.

The article, Macquarie Island is Back in Bloom, tells of ecstatic scientists who have watched the islands mega-herb populations take over the island quicker than anyone had expected.

Rabbits have been a problem on Macquarie Island for a number of years, but have become most troublesome recently. As I mentioned in my previous post on pest species, rabbits are most dangerous in large numbers, especially to local vegetation.

The last estimate of the population size of rabbits on Macquarie Island was around 100,000 and in such large numbers, they can certainly mow through the vegetation. These mega-herbs are crucial for a number of invertebrate and sea-bird species that are, in many cases, endemic to the island. What’s more is that Macquarie Island has peat soil that is easily eroded without the support that these mega-herbs provide.

So how did they achieve it? Eradicating such a virulent species from an isolated island is no easy task. The snippet below from the ECOS Magazine article sums it up nicely, but I highly recommend having a look at the full article and doing a little dance for the mega-herbs of Macquarie Island.

“Three months before aerial baiting resumed in 2011, rabbit calicivirus was introduced to the island to reduce the rabbit population. This step was part of a risk management strategy to minimise the number of poisoned rabbit carcases above ground that could be eaten by predatory or scavenging seabirds.

By last July, the last of the poisoned bait had been dropped from helicopter-slung buckets. Teams of hunters, accompanied by highly trained sniffer dogs and handlers, then arrived on the island to ‘mop up’ remaining pests. While they initially managed to flush out 13 rabbits, none have been detected on the island since December.”

Problematic Predators: An Introduction to Pests in NZ

You may have noticed that I continue to mention these things called introduced mammalian predators or pests.  I realise that I haven’t yet informed my readers of what these pests actually are, and why they are so damaging to New Zealand’s natural environment.

The Sub-Antarctic Islands have not come out unscathed by introduced predators. To date, the Department of Conservation has carried out two separate eradication programmes on both Campbell and Auckland Islands – the latter of which, was a complete success. The only remaining pest species are pigs, cats, and mice on Auckland Island, and mice on Antipodes Islands (which will hopefully change in the near future).

This long overdue blog post is about five of the ferocious and frustrating pest species that plague New Zealand in general.

Please note that this blog post includes videos that may disturb and that these five pests are not the only predators plaguing New Zealand.

1. The Rat

We often hear about ‘rats’ being a pest, but did you know that there are actually three species of rat threatening New Zealand’s wildlife?

The kiore (or Pacific rat) was introduced by early Maori settlers in the 10th century and both the ship rat (black rat) and Norway rat were introduced by early European settlers in the 17th century.

All three species negatively impact the environment by eating rare weta, frogs, snails, tuatara, lizards, insects, birds, as well as the fruits, flowers, and seeds of native plants. Of all the species, the Norway rat is the largest, followed by the ship rat and both are known to prey on birds eggs,  chicks, and even in some cases – the adults. They’re very bad news for biodiversity.

2. The Rabbit

The rabbit was brought into New Zealand in the early 1830’s as a source of food and activity in the form of hunting. What early european settlers didn’t predict was how well these rabbits would do, and how busy future generations of farmers would be keeping plagues of them from destroying their pastures.

In New Zealand, there were many attempts to control the population that included introducing stoats, poison, digging out burrows, and even establishing a commercial industry exporting rabbit skins. While some of these methods have controlled rabbit populations, they are still widespread throughout New Zealand.

In the Southern Ocean, the rabbit is best known for eating out entire fields of mega-herbs on Macquarie Island, an Australian Sub-Antarctic Island. A number of attempts to eradicate them from the island have occurred over the past 5 – 10 years with the main challenge being the quick removal of carcasses that is required to prevent secondary poisoning of carrion eating species such as skuas.

3. The Stoat

Ironically, the stoat was introduced to New Zealand with the hopes that it would control the rabbit population. Although it is a natural predator-prey relationship in the northern hemisphere, it didn’t turn out so well in New Zealand as the stoats found other New Zealand wildlife easier to catch.

Stoats are most problematic following a beech mast, which involves a large number of beech trees in a forest releasing their seeds at the same time. Following these events, mice numbers increase drastically and in the years following a beech mast, stoat numbers soar as they are able to prey on mice. Once mice numbers have declined, however, the increased stoat population will prey on native birds and animals and can have incredibly negative effects on native population numbers.

4. The Mouse

On the mainland, mice are most often observed eating berries, seeds, and insects on the forest floor. Like the stoat, they are most abundant following a beech mast on the mainland of New Zealand. Luckily for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, there are no beech trees to fuel such plagues. But that doesn’t mean they are not a threat to species in the Sub-Antarctic.

On islands, mice are recorded to act more like rats, and will take larger prey, including bird eggs, chicks, and even adults. A recent video shows a group of mice literally eating an albatross chick alive in the nest, a time when it is most vulnerable to predation.

 

Once again, I have to mention the Million Dollar Mouse project that Gareth Morgan is currently running, which aims to raise enough funds to eradicate mice from the islands. I keep pushing this project because I believe in it, and it’s a great way to raise awareness for Aotearoa’s Sub-Antarctic Islands.

5. The Cat

I think people tend to forget that their pussy-cats are the perfect predators. Cats often hunt out of instinct, and wont always eat their kill. They’re more likely to kill for a challenge, rather than to survive.

One example of the damage that cats can have is seen in the story of the Steven’s Island Wren. The most common story is that the lighthouse keepers cat, named Mr. Tibbles, was responsible for the species’ extinction. Although possible, it is more likely that the species became extinct as a result of predation by feral cats in the winter of 1895, just 14 years after humans first settled on the island in 1881.

While the best way to control cats is to treat them like every other pest, it’s only natural for humans to keep pets and we tend to believe that cats are the perfect companion. There are a few things you can do to control your pussy-cat, however, that will benefit both your conscience and the natives around you:

Keep your cats inside at night, have them wear a bell if they are outside at any time, have your cat de-sexed to prevent them breeding with feral cats, never abandon a cat, and of course the most obvious – try to keep your cat well fed and watered so that it’s never required to hunt to survive.

Incredible Endemic Species of the Southern Ocean.

If you thought that New Zealand’s mainland has some pretty special animals, wait until you meet the incredible endemics that you’ll find living on the Sub-Antarctic Islands.

What does endemic mean, I hear you wonder. It means that an animal is found nowhere else in the world. The perfect example is the kiwi on New Zealand’s mainland. The pukeko, on the other hand is a native because it’s also found across the ditch in Australia, where they call it the purple swamp hen.

So what endemic species call the Sub-Antarctic Islands home? Let’s meet three of the regions incredible endemics…

1. The Snares Penguin

The Snares Penguin (Photo: Wikimedia)

How do you fit 50,000 penguins on an area of just 3.5 square kilometres? Head down to The Snares Islands and find out. The Snares penguin are found nowhere else in the world, and have very little space to work with.

If they look familiar, it’s because they’re related to the crested penguins that we know and love like the Fiordland crested penguin and the rockhopper penguin.

While the Snares penguin is not considered as threatened, it is vulnerable to extinction because of its limited range. If a threat to its survival were to arise, it would quickly wipe out a large proportion of the population and because they are found nowhere else on the planet, recovery would be slowed down significantly.

2. The Antipodes Island Parakeet

The Antipodes Island Parakeet (Photo: ExplorNZ)

The Antipodes Island Parakeet is the largest in it’s genus and is closely related to the yellow, orange, and red-fronted parakeet (you may know them as kakariki) that are found throughout New Zealand.

As it name would suggest, it’s only found on the Antipodes Islands, a small rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Its main island is a mere 20 square kilometres in size, and is surrounded by a number of rocky islands and outcrops no more than 2 square kilometres in size.

The greatest threat to these birds is the introduced mouse population on the Antipodes Islands, which I mentioned in a previous blog post. They predate on the eggs and adults of these birds, and can only be stopped through eradication. Take a look at the Our Far South Million Dollar Mouse Project.

3. The Royal Penguin

Royal Penguin on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The royal penguin is found on an island that I haven’t yet covered on this blog, despite it being an interesting and important island habitat for species in the Southern Ocean. Macquarie Island is an Australian Territory found about halfway between the Australian mainland and Antarctic.

The royal penguin is endemic to the island, and a number of colonies are scattered throughout the island, the largest consisting of around 30,000 breeding pairs. Like the Snares penguin, it’s a member of the crested penguins genus (Eudyptes).

The Tasmanian government issued a hunting license for the royal penguin between 1870 and 1919 and an average of 150,000 penguins were killed each year for their oil, with each penguins providing around half a litre. Despite this dark period in their history, the royal penguin are not considered threatened and remain in large numbers on the island.

Southern Ocean Stories

I went through some of my photographs from the Sub-Antarctic Islands that I took on my voyage south with Heritage Expeditions over the easter break. Each time I do this, it feels more and more like a dream and I begin to remember the little things about that trip that made it so special. I thought I would share a couple of excerpts from the diary I took while I was on the Spirit of Enderby in an attempt to document my experience. It helps me remember, and hopefully, gives readers an insight to the fantastic region that is the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand.

13th December 2010

The climb in Carnley Harbour, Auckland Island. (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Today we went around to Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands. We were given a choice of going on a Zodiac cruise around the Island or climbing to the top of a peak (around 200m so not too bad) to get a look at the white-capped mollymawk colony. It was a pretty hard work but definitely worth it in the end! They were beautiful. The mud was plentiful and the grass deceptive as I grabbed a few to hold on to and came out with sliced up hands.

White-Capped Mollymawk on Auckland Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

Once we got up the top we had lunch and relaxed for a little bit before having to leave early. The ship was apparently dragging its anchor and so had to move further out of the harbour. The harbour acts as a wind tunnel, which we soon found out on the Zodiac ride back. We were up in the air and side to side for most of it. Eventually we got back to the boat and prepared the cabin for the supposed treacherous waters between the Auckland Islands and Macquarie Island. I can honestly say that I felt sick for the first time the whole trip and didn’t manage to get dinner.

15th December 2010

First day on Macquarie Island today. Words can’t describe how excited I was when we were heading ashore, even looking from the boat you could see a mass of little black and white specks dotting the coast line. It was like something out of Animal Planet. When we got ashore in the Zodiacs, we had to weave our way through elephant seals and along the beach to the Royal Penguin colony.

Royal Penguins on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The Royals were incredibly interested in us, one even came up and nibbled on my trousers as if to say “who are you, what do you want?”. We had to walk at a very slow pace so that we didn’t startle them, especially the King Penguins which were much more skittish. Quite funny to watch people waddling very slowly along the beach, but better than startling thousands of penguins. Elephant seals were huge and quite sedentary, although I assume they can still move pretty fast! I still can’t get over the sound that they make, it’s quite disturbing!

Southern Elephant Seal on Macquarie Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

I think of that trip every single day and without sounding cliché, am so incredibly thankful that I was lucky enough to be on it. I hope my adventure and my passion for these islands has inspired at least 1 other person to take an interest. Even if it’s only looking at a Wikipedia article. That’s where it all starts.