Do we need New Zealand’s indigenous species?

Do we need New Zealand’s indigenous species?

I gave a talk on “Understanding and valuing our plants” at the recent open day of Otari-Wilton’s Bush in Wellington. I’m very interested in why New Zealand’s native species might be valued. I am hoping you can help me think about that – I welcome your input; see below.

As background, New Zealand has over 8500 indigenous kinds of plants – see the blog post How many plants are in New Zealand?

The fork fern Tmesipteris tannensis is indigenous to New Zealand, being present here without human intervention. Moreover, it is endemic, being indigenous to New Zealand and nowhere else in the world. About 45% of the indigenous ferns and 80% of the indigenous seed plants are endemic to New Zealand. Photo Leon Perrie CC BY-NC.
The fork fern Tmesipteris tannensis is indigenous to New Zealand, being present here without human intervention. Moreover, it is endemic, being indigenous to New Zealand and nowhere else in the world. About 45% of the indigenous ferns and 80% of the indigenous seed plants are endemic to New Zealand. Photo Leon Perrie CC BY-NC.

What value are New Zealand’s indigenous plants?

Human society is absolutely dependent on biodiversity. We need plants, fungi, animals, and other organisms for foods and materials, and for cleaning and stabilising our environment.

But does New Zealand society need its indigenous plants and other biodiversity? Comparatively few provide direct economic benefits (e.g., mānuka and its honey).

 The moss Cladomnion ericoides is a New Zealand endemic, being indigenous here and nowhere else. Do you feel any connection with it? Photo Leon Perrie CC BY-NC.
The moss Cladomnion ericoides is a New Zealand endemic, being indigenous here and nowhere else. Do you feel any connection with it? Photo Leon Perrie CC BY-NC.

I’ve a technocratic bent, and think that if New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity was eliminated and replaced with life-sustaining species from elsewhere in the world, human society would persist just fine in New Zealand. After all, most of the world’s humans already live without New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity – so why should we value and look after it?

Some people think that all organisms have a ‘right’ to exist, and/or that we as humans are interconnected with the rest of the living world, and have a duty to care for it. I’m not sure how compelling these ideas are to the public at large.

Recently, I’ve pondered this issue in the context of identity. People often connect with places, and our place – Aotearoa New Zealand – has unique biodiversity that figuratively immerses us.

Ponga or silver fern, Cyathea dealbata – a New Zealand endemic and icon. Used by many New Zealanders as a symbol of New Zealand. Photo Leon Perrie. © Te Papa. Blog post on the silver fern.
Ponga or silver fern, Cyathea dealbata – a New Zealand endemic and icon. Used by many New Zealanders as a symbol of New Zealand. Photo Leon Perrie. © Te Papa. Blog post on the silver fern.

Personally, I derive a substantial portion of my identity as a New Zealander from our environment, including the plants and animals. Consequently, this means I feel a duty of care for the indigenous organisms that set New Zealand apart from the rest of the world.

This connection of kaitiakitanga applies even when I don’t know what those indigenous organisms look like – they are New Zealanders, like me, and I value (or empathise with) them for it. It means, for example, that I regarded the decision to proceed with the Denniston mine, which will make eight Threatened species even rarer, as an insult to my New Zealandness.

Blog post on the mining of Denniston.

But what do you think?

Please leave a comment below.

Why do you value New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity? And, why do you think others should similarly care? Or, conversely, perhaps you’re a New Zealander who regards the indigenous biodiversity as irrelevant – why?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially as New Zealanders’ relationships with their biodiversity is very relevant as Te Papa refreshes its natural history exhibitions.


  1. Cultural identity is a good reason for stewardship of endemic flora and fauna. Look after them because it makes us happy is reason enough. This fits higher in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but not is not needed for the lowest level (Physiological).

    We can’t go back to a pre-human almost Gondawanalike state. We have a new New Zealand with a unique blend of the old and the new. Exotics can be weedy, and invasive. Yet, consider that some of our native animals do well on the produce of exotic plants, conversely exotic animals pollinate some native plants. In so doing or future will be uniquely different from our past. But whatever that may be it will always be ours.

  2. If most kiwis were told they won a trip to live in the Galapagos or Madagascar they may think its a once and a lifetime opportunity to be amongst flora and fauna found no where else in the world. I think sometimes we forget New Zealand is just the same …flora and fauna found no where else in the world. Our counties history has evolved from its Geographic isolation.
    Because of this isolation we live in a very special part of the world that deserves special protection which means more rules than continental countries. We could do more …were lucky to live here.

  3. Hi Leon. I value New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity for similar reasons as you. Interacting with New Zealand’s environment and biodiversity is at the heart of my connection with New Zealand and being a New Zealander. I think some exotic species are entwined in this connection now, but certainly knowing about and learning more about indigenous plant species – their character, habitats and uses – makes me feel more connected with my birth country.

    Departing from emotive connections, I think there is a strong economic reason for why New Zealanders should care about retaining New Zealand’s biodiversity. The current take from tourism (domestic and foreign) is 10.3 billion per annum. A large number of these people explore New Zealand for our dramatic landscapes and unique environment and to experience (directly or indirectly) our unique plant life.

    According to numbers quoted by Devon McLean, chair of Predator Free New Zealand, ‘60% of visitors coming to New Zealand come here for our nature’ Given that what makes New Zealand’s nature unique is our endemic species, we can say that our c. 2000 endemic plant species help to bring in over 5.1 billion dollars ever year.

    Some of these tourists will come here and admire our pine tree and lupin covered landscapes or be more interested in connecting with our ocean life. But from a terrestrial perspective, even if we exclude these people, we are still talking large numbers. Numbers that are convincing for more investment in science and conservation.

  4. Personally, it speaks volumes about who we are as humans, when we destroy or protect vulnerable biota/ecosystems – especially when we understand so little about them. Rationally, there is evidence that greater diversity increases the capability of an ecosystem to withstand disturbances. For some reason, I project this to the biome scale and assume that diversity will assist the entire world to recover/adapt to global disturbances.

  5. I think we do not know enough to know how important this preservation is. I have often thought about the why and my intellect can theorize but what ever arguments are played out for or against I know in my heart it is important. For people, for culture, the wellness of this world reflects our own wellness in a way that science may not yet be able to document but is not less real.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Xanthe.

  6. You start with a big assumption, namely that you are somehow in control of what you do. Like all animals we behave irrationally and change the (not our) environment with existence which ultimately leads to extinction and evolution. Being a New Zealander is silly and smacks of insecurity. You are just a tiny part of a world and what you do is no different to what an elephant or a tree fern does to that world. This world will change because of the inter-behaviour of everything – organic and inorganic. So what is this “value”? Value smacks of selfishness. I take selfish pleasure from the myriad experiences the vegetation about me confers. To do so means I have to tramp all over it regardless of the damage I do. Sure, I can minimise the damage, but what use is minimum to the life I destroy in the process of satisfying my personal and selfish desires. The indigenes that are so comforting are but passing elements as we are. They, and we, are set to disappear and give way to new life forms and there is no choice in the matter. If we are to leave this place to the indigenes then the only option is for everyone to leave and hope they can deal with all the non-human, non-indigenes we leave behind. How many dead indigenes will feature in the natural history exhibitions? Sorry for the ramble!

    1. Author

      Thanks John! Perhaps we can discuss this more at the Bryophyte Workshop.

      I suppose I feel that, individually and collectively, humans can alter the kinds and extent of impacts they have on the rest of the environment (acknowledging that we often can not fully anticipate/understand the results of our actions). In that regard, perhaps we have some modicum of “control”, and to the extent that we have, how do we want to modify our behaviour to conserve what is left of the pre-human biota of NZ?

      If left to its own devices, much of NZ’s indigenous biodiversity would persist (some would thrive) in the face of present and future introductions from elsewhere in the world. But a number of species wouldn’t, without active pest control and other management interventions. Would additional extinctions matter (to NZers)? (And why?) Especially if we’re just a ‘moment in time’.

  7. Hiya, I hear what you are saying about our natural flora, however, I think that what we arr forgetting is that we are part of the introduced pest species that has thrown New Zealand ecology out of balance, so yes, economically we’d do just fine, until our water supply deteorated. New Zealand flora has evolved with the land, and geology. Its acts as buffer zones and nutrient sinks which keep our streams and oceans functioning in a well balanced way. Sure, we could introduced much more attractive species, and continue to deplete our indigenous biota would all of the biological functions of sustaining our environment, even for our existence be as effective and financially viable compared with nurturing our indigenous species? I think for the purpose of restoration, we need to associate our identity with critically endangered species. Even if in their current state, can not actively play a guild role within our current environment. Anyway, have a great day…Steph

    1. Author

      Thanks very much Steph. It is an interesting question as to whether NZ’s biodiversity is better adapted to the NZ physical environment than plants and animals from elsewhere. Intuitively, I’d say yes. But there are apparent exceptions. For examples, exotic conifers flourish in upland NZ environments where NZ’s indigenous trees don’t survive (which is why we’re having to weed pines out of the Desert Road area and the South Island highlands).

      The cultural identity aspect of NZ’s indigenous biodiversity is something I’d like to explore further.

  8. What a utopic place New Zealand must have been! It’s unique flora and fauna sets it apart from the rest of the world and I would urge the utmost diligence in preserving every living species possible.
    Instead of spending enormous amounts of money on things like changing our flag would it not be better to try and save our kiwi from marauding dogs that humans have introduced to this country? Or to eradicating the thousands of invasive weeds that invade our forests and parks in ever increasing numbers. Remember this, when a species goes extinct it has gone forever, there is no back button.

    1. Author

      Thanks Al.
      I hear what you’re saying.
      I hope you don’t mind me asking why you feel the extinction of a species is a phenomenon to be avoided? What do you think we (or future generations) miss out on?

    2. I fully agree with Al – 1 October.

      Another argument in favour of protecting, to the very best of our ability, our indigenous flora, and the indigenous fauna it supports and depends on, is investing in nation-wide, intensive, sustained, killing of introduced pest animals, pest plants annd other ecological weeds, to restore the natural functioning of our indigenous ecosystems.

      By doing this, the ecosystem service of carbon-sequestration by our indigenous ecosystems would be raised to the highest level possible. What better way to offset the nation’s extremely high per-capita of greenhouse gas emissions?

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