Why the Sub-Antarctic Islands Need the Department of Conservation

Last month, it was announced that 140 full-time positions will be cut from the Department of Conservation. In the last two years, the department has had $54 million dollars slashed from its budget – as Tom Scott illustrated, it’s the same as sucking fat from a skeleton. In an attempt to show the government the value that we as New Zealanders place on conserving our environment, Forest and Bird has announced that this Thursday the 11th of April will be their first Love DOC Day.

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It’s pretty self-explanatory – they want us to show the government and the Department of Conservation that we care and how much we appreciate all that they do to conserve our precious species.

I fell in love with birds in my first year of university. I fell in love with DOC when I first worked for them as a volunteer and saw how hard they work to save my first love of the feathered variety. Most encouraging of all was that the hard work was happening at every level of the department and wasn’t limited to those with “ranger” in their job title. I’ve seen everyone from programme directors, to researchers, to cooks, to the five-year old son of an island ranger help out in some small way – by setting a trap, monitoring a stream, or cutting out an invasive plant species.

I fell in love with the Sub-Antarctic Islands when I visited them in 2010. They are managed by the Southland Conservancy who have played a critical role in conserving them as wildlife hotspots. The species you will find there today simply could not and would not have survived without their pest control efforts or breeding programmes.

These islands are New Zealand’s diamonds in the rough – home to species found nowhere else in the world. Think of them as tiny life rafts for birds, seals, and rare plants that are anything from 3.5 to 112 square kilometres in size. Without DOC, these life rafts could sink. It’s the Department of Conservation who carry out the pest control. It’s the Department of Conservation who monitor the streams. It’s the Department of Conservation who set up breeding programmes that can and have saved species from extinction.

While the future may look bleak, I want to look at the past – at the evidence – of why the Sub-Antarctic Islands need the Department of Conservation and to show you some of the species that could actually be affected by these changes.

1. They eradicated the Norway Rat from Campbell Island and saved a species from extinction.

You will find Campbell Island 700 kilometres south of Bluff. It’s remote, it’s exposed to extreme weather conditions – and it was once covered in rats. It is also home to the Campbell Island Teal – a nocturnal, flightless duck that was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered by DOC staff in 1975. The reason for their assumed extinction – rats.

citCampbell Island Teal (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

The remaining birds were quickly removed and the Department of Conservation spent twenty years trying to figure out how to remove rats from the island despite hearing cries of “crazy” and “impossible” from conservationists around the world. Nothing could deter them, and the island was declared rat-free in 2003. Not only did they break the record for the largest island eradication (previously held by the Kapiti Island project), they returned Campbell Island Teal and gave them a fighting chance at re-populating the island.

Read more about the conservation of Campbell Island Teal here & more about the eradication here.

2. They’re looking out for New Zealand’s most endangered marine mammal.

There once was a time when the New Zealand Sea Lion was found all over New Zealand’s south-east coast. Today 80% of a declining population are found in the Auckland Islands. The Department of Conservation has run an annual research programme since 1994 that provides valuable scientific information to the New Zealand government in an attempt to assist them in enforcing fishing protocols that will benefit the survival of this species.

sealionNew Zealand Sea Lions (Photo: Phombo)

They examine the survival rates, foraging behaviour, and productivity of populations and count the number of pups born at a number of breeding sites all over the Auckland Islands. They do this by “tagging all pups born on Enderby, and a sample on Dundas to facilitate monitoring of how many return each year. This data is used to estimate survival and reproductive rates for the population. Satellite transmitters and time depth recorders are used to find out where the mothers go to feed and how pups and teenagers learn how and where to feed. Biopsy samples are taken to look at nutrient levels, as this may change with changes in diet.

Read more about DOC’s NZ Sea Lion Management Plan here.

3. Because look at all these rare, endemic and endangered species!

They’re all endemic to their own islands. I can’t stress this point enough: without DOC they’d be gone. Forever – as in no bringing them back. I can almost guarantee that if they could talk, they would tell you how much they love DOC. I know I love DOC on their behalf, and I hope you will help me to show it on April the 11th!

SONY DSCThe Auckland Island Banded Dotterel is found only in the Auckland Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

IMG_8250A large proportion of the Southern Royal Albatross population nest on Campbell Island (Photo: Kimberley Collins)

541939_10151396116075132_1670759996_ntThe Antipodes Island Parakeet is endemic to the Antipodes Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins).

SONY DSCThe Snares Crested Penguin is found only on the Snares Islands (Photo: Kimberley Collins).

sdfsdThe Bounty Island Shag is endemic to the Bounty Islands (Photo: Bird Quest Tours)

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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!