Threatened species in New Zealand – why does our perception not match reality?

Pateke or brown teal

In 2012 the Department of Conservation listed 2723 New Zealand species as threatened or at-risk. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of threatened or at-risk species in the world.  Amongst vascular plants we now have fewer native than naturalised (alien species living and spreading in the wild) species.  This does not match New Zealand’s internationally promoted message of Pure New Zealand.  If we count all alien vascular plant species present in New Zealand, we now have nearly ten times as many alien as native species.  This is definitely not 100% pure New Zealand.,

However, it seems that public perceptions about the state of our land and freshwater plants and animals, do not match reality. This was one of the findings of the recently released 2016 Lincoln University survey of public perceptions of New Zealand’s environment.  The study found that about 70% of respondents rated the condition of land and freshwater native plants and animals as adequate to good, while 28.8% rated the condition as bad or very bad.  This size of this last group has, however, increased significantly from 17.7% in 2010.

So why does most of the public think that the condition of land and freshwater plants and animals is Ok? Kevin Hague (chief executive for Forest and Bird) thinks that a major reason is the many good-news media stories relating to conservation.  These stories include: releases of selected high-profile threatened species; community predator control and habitat enhancement projects; and the creation and management of predator-free sanctuaries.  Such stories can come with good footage or photos of people enjoying holding/ releasing cute animals or protecting habitats.

It seems that what may have happened is that the Department of Conservation and conservation groups have tried to focus on good news stories to help empower people to become involved in conservation. Some people had been concerned that ongoing negative stories about the state of the environment were disempowering, leaving people feeling that there was nothing they could do.  It is possible that the pendulum swung too much in the other direction –leaving many people thinking that the protection of New Zealand nature was being taken care of.

So maybe what we need is the middle approach. We inform about the dire state of many New Zealand’s plants, animals and their habitats.  We also report about what is being done to help and explain that much more is needed.  This is a harder and more nuanced message for today’s minimal attention spans.  It is essential if we are going to obtain the resourcing needed to protect New Zealand’s unique indigenous biodiversity into the future.

Vicky Froude; 3 July 2017