Vanishing Nature: A must-read for all New Zealanders

The Environmental Defence Society’s new book Vanishing Nature – facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis, should be read by every New Zealander concerned about our native plants and wildlife and striking natural landscapes; and particularly by Government Ministers before Budget Day on 21 May.

The book authored by Marie Brown, Theo Stephens, Raewyn Peart and Bevis Fedder is a cogent, critical analysis of New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis, some of the reasons for it, and ways to tackle it.

Our indigenous biodiversity is slipping away. Despite the laudable goals of the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, present efforts are insufficient to even halt this decline, much less reverse it.

As the authors note, “Our indigenous biodiversity is slipping away. Despite the laudable goals of the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, present efforts are insufficient to even halt this decline, much less reverse it. Rates of loss in New Zealand are such that without change, the next few decades are likely to see the loss of many iconic species (including the New Zealand sea lion and Maui’s dolphin) along with those that live in our disappearing remnants of lowland ecosystems. Without ongoing intervention with pest control, captive breeding and other techniques, a substantial swathe of already imperilled species is also likely to die out. Familiar species that we may lose include kōkako, kiwi, saddleback, black stilt, longfin eel, long-tailed bats and many lizards. It is inarguable that urgent action is needed.”[1]

Brown Kiwi
Brown Kiwi

Human settlement in Aotearoa has already made 56 bird species extinct so the authors’ prediction of future loss is no overstatement. Nearly 40 % of New Zealand’s native plant species, more than 40 % of our bird species, 74 % of our freshwater fish species and 85 % of our native lizards are threatened with, or at risk of extinction.

Some of the reasons for our biodiversity crisis include: the impacts of human settlement, the introduction of rats, stoats, ferrets, possums and other predators, our wholesale conversion of indigenous habitats to farmland, markets not valuing biodiversity, New Zealand’s “ambiguous and disjointed “ legislation, the weak enforcement of that legislation, and inadequate monitoring and “incoherent” performance reporting. There is also limited public understanding of the seriousness of the crisis, in part because of the stream of good news press releases from the Department of Conservation.

The authors examine various solutions. One is to improve the funding models as current conservation funding is “paltry” relative to the task.  I agree. In 2013/14 Department of Conservation (DoC) revenue was $346 million with only $163 m for natural heritage management. DoC’s current funding allows it to do pest control on only 12 per cent of the conservation estate. We don’t fund education to provide educational opportunities to only 12 per cent of children or fund health services for only 12 per cent of New Zealanders. Conservation should be no different.

Other potential initiatives to increase the investment in conservation include: an environmental consumption tax on the intensity of land use; a new environmental protection fund funded by a polluter pays approach to activities that harm biodiversity; payments to landholders for ecosystem services provided by indigenous habitat on private and Maori land, law changes, and increased legal aid funding for environmental cases in the public interest (slashed by National).

Marie Brown and her co-authors, the Environmental Defence Society and the New Zealand Law Foundation all deserve congratulations for publishing this timely survey and analysis of how much we are failing the distinctive native plants and other animals with whom we share these islands and scoping some potential solutions.

Conservation is all of our business. There has been an explosion of community interest in practical local conservation projects controlling predators and weeds. Central government has a primary responsibility for providing adequate core funding for conservation, and improving the legal, policy, and planning tools. The beautiful photograph of the ruru/morepork on the book’s cover challenges us to do much better here.

Under National, we have seen DoC’s budget slashed

Under National, we have seen DoC’s budget slashed, a halving in the number of RMA cases taken by DoC to advocate for biodiversity protection on private land, aggressive promotion of and subsidies for irrigation and intensive dairying at the expense of healthy rivers and with no parallel increase in conservation funding, environmental legal aid funding slashed and the privatisation of thousands of hectares of Crown owned grasslands and shrublands which deserved protection as conservation land.


[1] Brown, Marie et al (April 2015) “Vanishing Nature, facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis,” Environmental Defence Society and New Zealand Law Foundation at p 176.

3 Comments Posted

  1. The changing pattern of plant diseases will shortly be reflected in grain prices….fungal disease has already affected North American wheat and some conifers and is almost certain to be the result of rises in temperature and humidity. So stock up on corn!

  2. “Loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest threats facing our world and our spices” (Tennyson & Martinson, 2008), and human impact, disease, loss of habitat and predators is undoubtedly the most prominent threats. Our most famous extinct species is probably the moa.

    There is a certain romance about the story of moa, so much mystery, vague details and controversy. Fragmented and disintegrated bones of moa are housed in dusty glass cases around New Zealand museums with segments of descriptive texts and stories of the bones last resting place and their defining species.

    Moa and humans

    Humans arrived to New Zealand in approximately year 900AD. “Two Polynesian voyagers, Kupe and Ngahue, who arrived here about 900 A.D. They explored a large portion of the coast-line of both islands, finding no inhabitants, but discovering greenstone in the Arahura River on the west coast of the South Island. Ngahue also killed a moa. They returned to Hawaiki and reported their discovery and gave sailing directions how to reach this country” (Teviotdale, 1932). The Maori people came to the large wild Pacific islands of bitter winters, sharp snow covered alps and vibrant native forest full of wondrous birds, reptiles and the flying mammal bat. Also, the Maori people brought a few mammals to New Zealand, the Pacific dog (kuri) and rat (kiore). Kuri were thought to accompany humans during hunting expeditions (Brewster, 1987), while it is probable that kiore sneaked aboard the canoe (reti) before the long journeys to New Zealand or they were a valued food source travelling at sea.

    The Maori people became part of the land, building their houses (wharepuni) with native trees, encrusted with beautiful carvings (pūkiore) depicting their spiritual world, they weaved bags (kete) out of native flax, carved tools out of greenstone (Pounamu), bones and other minerals.

    During the later part of moa’s lifetime it was a highly valued food source and material resource for humans. The Maori people would travel long distances to hunt for the treasured bird, tracking and capturing the large bird with nets (hao), wooden harpoons (rāti), traps or snares (tārore) (Harvie, 2012). Sometimes the dark fatty meat was preserved with its own fat so that it could be returned back to the village without decay, the eggs were also eaten and sometimes buried with high ranking tribes people. While the moa’s skins, bones and feathers were used as garments (feathers were used to decorate and insulate cloaks (korowai)), tools (bone fish hooks) and adornments (bone pendants and feathers for decorating hair) (Berentson, 2012. Brewster, 1987).

    Extinction theories

    Over time many theories about moa’s demise have been told, making it a controversial and mysterious topic. Therefore we cannot be completely sure of the exact reason for their demise, yet we can theorise that the many presently believed causes probably played a part in their disappearance.

    “Did we alone drive the giant birds over the brink or were they already on their way out thanks to disease and volcanic eruption” (Morell, 2014).

    The discovery of moa bones in middens throughout New Zealand heeds the conclusion that humans were probably part of the cause for moa’s extinction. However if indeed humans accelerated the demise, it would have taken hundreds of years. Gill and Martinson theorize that humans would have first killed the moa on the coastline nearer to civilisation and then turned to inland moa when the others died out (Gill & Martinson, 1991). In which case, their extinction would have probably occurred in several stages. More recently in 2014 Perry et al. of Auckland University and Landcare Research, analysed 653 carbon dates of moa remains from a range of natural and archaeological sites. The results concluded the moa extinction is estimated at around 1440 to 1445 (Perry et al, 2014. Feild, 2014). Perry et al. also theorised that over hunting of moa during early human colonisation was a prime reason for their “rapid” extinction (Perry et al, 2014. Feild, 2014). While, “Humans everywhere will take what they need to survive” (Allentoft, 2014). Therefore it would only be logical that humans would have taken advantage of surrounding wild life such as moa to survive New Zealand’s volatile environment, as humans have done all over the world. Moreover, according to Turvey et al. moa were slow breeders and did not reach reproduction age until 10 years old. Consequently, it would have been incredibly difficult for moa to reproduce the loss/killed of their species to keep up with the probable human demand for their meat.

    However, Gill and Martinson suggest that large parts of forest were burnt in the South Island which would have possibly killed many moa (Gill & Martinson, 1991). Moreover, there were evidently large forest fires in dry regions; Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Otago and Canterbury, which were evident through the analysis of soil layers (Brewster, 1987).
    Rat (kiore) and dog (kuri) probably ate moa eggs, chicks and small moa, furthermore, kiore possibly inhabited New Zealand an estimated 1000 years before humans arrived (Gill & Martinson, 1991. Worthy & Holdaway, 2002).

    In 1868 James Melvin stated that moa were poisoned by tutu (coriaria, a plant which contains a neurotoxin tutin and is known to be toxic to humans and animals), then in 1890 Vincent Pyke theorised that shrinking water levels reduced the growth of moss beds which were thought to be eaten by moa (Brewster, 1987). Moreover avian disease has been theorised as component of moas demise (Gill & Martinson, 1991.Worthy & Holdaway, 2002).

    Avian botulism is a common disease which affects water fowl and some ratite bird species . In the summer of 2013 to 2014 approximately 3000 birds were killed by avian botulism in the Waikato area (Pearl, 2014), while in the Waimakariri District in Canterbury an estimated 1000 birds died at the Kaiapoi Oxidation Ponds between January 6 and 16 2014 from avian botulism (Mathewson, 2014), and in February 2015 about 50 dead birds were found in the Kapiti area due to avian botulism (Walker, 2015). Ducks, seagulls and shags were evidently killed by the illness, which causes them to have paralysation, respiratory failure and utlimate death (Walker, 2015). Avian botulism is a toxin caused by bacteria in rotten vegetation the birds eat in still creeks and ponds when the climate is exceedingly dry and hot (Walker, 2015). These conditions cause the oxygen and water levels to drop and the water temperatures to rise to dangerous levels, making it the perfect condition for bacteria to thrive and multiple (Walker, 2015). Ratite birds such as ostriches and emus are prone to avian botulism, especially when in large farmed flocks (Christenson, 1997). They have the typical symptoms and usually die without medical intervention (Christenson, 1997). If the present populations of ratite birds and general New Zealand birds are prone to avian botulism, then it can be hypothesised that moa too were possibly prone to the disease during dry hot seasons, maybe killing thousands of moa in grassland and swampland areas.

    Also in 1931 Lindsey Buick suggested that volcanic eruptions could have also impacted the lives of moa (Brewster, 1987). The North Island of New Zealand is known to have active volcanoes, boiling mud hot pools, geysers and thermal areas, and Auckland alone sits on around 60 volcanoes (Fuller, 2000). Resent volcanic eruptions include Mt Ruapahu in 1996 and 2007, and Mt Tongariro in 2012. These were very minor eruptions which killed plants and trees, and disturbed bird life. However, in 1886 Tarawera erupted destroying human and animal life, plants and trees (Fuller, 2000). But these recent volcanoes would by far dwarf the volcanic activity in the prehistoric era (Fuller, 2000). It could be hypothesised that monstrous volcanic activity of the far past wiped out large percentages of New Zealand wildlife such as moa.

    Lastly, giant moa were evidently drowned due to flooding of swamps in the Pyramid Valley, where remains were found to be 3400 years old, long before any human colonisation in New Zealand (Brewster, 1987 and Duff, 1952).

    Allentoft, M. (2014). Why do New Zealand’s moa go extinct?. Article by Morell, V. Science Magazine. 17/03/14. Source: (accessed 23/02/15).

    Anderson, A. (1989). On evidence for the survival of moa in European Fiordland. New Zealand Journal of Ecology. Vol. 12. New Zealand Ecology Society.

    Berentson, Q. (2012). Moa, the life and death of New Zealand’s legendary bird.

    Buick, T.L. (1931). The Mystery of Moa. New Zealand’s Avian Giant. Published by Thomas Avery & Son.

    Brewster, B. (1987). Te Moa, The life and death of New Zealand’s unique bird. Nikau Press. Nelson, NZ.

    Duff, R. (1952). Pyramid Valley. The Story of New Zealand’s Greatest Moa Swamp. The Pegasus Press. Canterbury, NZ.

    Gill, B. Martinson, P. (1991). New Zealand extinct birds. Random Century

    Field, M. (2014). Moa extinction rapid – study. Environment. Stuff. Published 24/10/2014. Source: (accessed: 22/02/15).

    Fuller, E. (2000). Extinct Birds. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0198508379.

    Furey, L. (2009).Description of archaeological deposits in dunes, White Beach,Great Mercury Island (Ahuahu). CFG Heritage Ltd. Source: (accessed: 15/03/15).

    Frampton, A. (1987). Wildlife Feature: Discovery : Fiordland once more. New Zealand Wildlife, Aut 1987; v.10 n.79:p.7-8. ISSN: 0028-8802.

    Harvie, W. (2012). Meet the moa. Your Weekend. The Press NZ, 17/11/12

    Kellet, A. (2015). University’s archaeology students uncover early human settlement. Auckland University News. Source: (accessed: 15/03/15).

    Mathewson, N. (2014). Avian botulism kills 1000 birds. Stuff. Source: (accessed: 26/02/15).

    Moorfield, J. (2003-2015). Te Aka Online Maori Dictonary. Auckland University of Technology. Source: . (Translation of all words English to Maori).

    Morell, V. (2014). Why did New Zealand’s moa go extinct?. Science Magazine. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Source: (accessed: 25/02/14).

    NZAP. (). Giant Eagle ruled New Zealand skies. Stuff.
    Source: (accessed: 20/01/15),

    NZ Newswire. (2015). Uni students uncover moa in ancient oven. MSN News Source: (accessed: 15/03/15)..

    Pearl,H.(2014). Avian botulism strikes down thousands of birds. Stuff. Source: (accessed: 26/02/15)

    Perry, G. Wheeler, A. Wood, J. Wilmshurst, J. (2014). A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews. Vol. 5. 01/12/14. Pages 126-135. Elsevier. Source: (accessed: 22/02/14).

    Tennyson, A. & Martinson, P. (2006). Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press. Wellington. New Zealand.

    Teviotdale, D. (1932). The Material Culture of the Moa-Hunters in Murihiku. The Journal of Polynesian Society, vol 41, 1932.

    Walker, R. (2015). 50 dead birds collected along Kapiti waterways. The Dominion Post. Stuff. Source: (accessed: 25/02/15)

    Worthy, T. Holdaway, R. (2002). The lost world of the moa. Prehistoric life of New Zealand. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis. ISBN: 0253340349

  3. Fantastic to see a book like this published. Thanks for the overview Eugenie. A must for all NZers to read – if only…

    This has been a pet hate of mine for many years: There is also limited public understanding of the seriousness of the crisis, in part because of the stream of good news press releases from the Department of Conservation.

    Our conservation department sure doesn’t help itself by publishing all the ‘feel good’ stuff, as the public then thinks its all in hand. The jobs being done – don’t have to worry about it…

Comments are closed.