Election 2017: Voting for the environment

Election 2017: Voting for the environment

This is a series on five major election issues seen through the eyes of the national museum.

In the lead-up to the 2017 General Election, we have linked each of these issues to an object, or a programme, run by Te Papa. In this post, Curator Botany Leon Perrie writes about the Environment.

Some commentators have touted the 2017 New Zealand parliamentary election as “the environment election”. At least some voters will be basing their decision on environmental policies. Are we looking after our fresh waters well enough? What are we prepared to do to be Predator Free by 2050? Then there is the question of what to do about the not-so-small-matter of climate change…

A specimen of Adam’s mistletoe
A specimen of Adam’s mistletoe, Trilepidea adamsii, in Te Papa’s collection of dried plants. The collectors of the plants on this sheet included James Adams, who the species is named after. Te Papa (WELT SP031297)

Another environmental issue that is rarely top-of-mind is the well-being of our fellow New Zealanders – the indigenous plants, animals, fungi, and other life forms with whom we share Aotearoa. How are they doing?

About two-thirds of New Zealanders surveyed believed the condition of our native plants and animals to be ‘adequate’ or ‘good’, according to the 2016 report on the Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment.

The authors of the report said that this was a surprise given it is clearly not the case. Rather, the report’s authors write that “the state of New Zealand’s biodiversity can be regarded as bad or very bad”.

Our biodiversity can’t be in a bad state – we’re ‘clean and green’

The plant above and below is Adam’s mistletoe. It’s extinct. Our only links to it now are museum specimens, illustrations, and remembrances.

Adam’s mistletoe
This watercolour by Fanny Osborne of Adam’s mistletoe reminds us of its beauty. At the time, it was known as Loranthus adamsii. It became extinct in the 1950s, probably because of forest clearance and possum browsing along with loss of pollinators and dispersers caused by introduced animals. Image courtesy of Auckland Museum.

Adam’s mistletoe is one of about 80 extinct New Zealand species – their mauri extinguished, and lost forever from New Zealand – directly or indirectly because of human activity. Birds have been particularly hard hit, with about 60 extinct species, along with some flowering plants, insects, frogs, a lizard, and a freshwater fish.

Have we failed as the kaitiaki | guardians of these species? It is difficult to argue otherwise.

But that’s all in the past, isn’t it?

Currently, some 800 New Zealand species are formally classified as ‘Threatened with Extinction’. That means they have small and/or declining populations. Generally this is because of humans.

But the true number of New Zealand species teetering on the brink of extinction must actually be much higher:

  1. Of New Zealand’s estimated 50,000 indigenous species, only about one-quarter have had their conservation status formally assessed (marine and small species are particularly poorly served).
  2. Of the species that have been assessed, about one-quarter are so poorly known that they cannot be given a conservation status. Many of these species are poorly known because they are very uncommon.

But we’re fixing it, right?

Judging by trends in the number of species formally regarded as Threatened, New Zealand has, at best, stabilised the decline. And maybe we haven’t even done that.

Birds are the focus of much of New Zealand’s species-level conservation efforts, so it is appropriate that they provide some good news.

The latest (2016) conservation assessment reported that of the 77 kinds of birds regarded as Threatened in 2012, 14 had improved out of that category (although only seven of these were attributed explicitly to conservation management).

But, this improvement was partially offset by the status of three other birds deteriorating to become Threatened.

Unfortunately, the decline seems to be continuing in groups other than birds. I’ve analysed recently revised conservation assessments for other animal and plant groups. These covered some 450 Threatened taxa.

They show that within the last few years, the status of about an additional 73 animals and plants deteriorated to become Threatened.

During the same period, only about 24 progressed out of the Threatened category. Worryingly for conservation practitioners, none of these improvements were explicitly attributed to successful conservation management (seemingly instead being due to new or reinterpreted data).

Does this matter?

Writing with respect to the condition of our indigenous species, the authors of the Public Perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment report say: “This public lack of understanding of the seriousness of the problem could ultimately hinder acceptance of additional expenditures and programmes in this area.”

This blog post hopefully helps further draw attention to the poor state of New Zealand’s indigenous species.

But what we do about this remains a choice. Voting is, of course, a significant means by which New Zealanders express their desires for their environment.

Do we fulfil our (obligated?) role as kaitiaki | guardians, and mobilise to restore the mauri | vitality of our indigenous species? If so, we need to do a lot more than the status quo.

Or, on our watch, do we let more species slip away?

Personally, I don’t want any more animal and plant New Zealanders to join the likes of Adam’s mistletoe, moa, and huia as being only able to be seen in a museum.


Read yesterday’s housing blog. Remaining topics in this series include education, immigration, and the economy.


  1. Excellent blog thanks Leon

  2. Excellent blog thank you Leon

  3. Thank you for writing such an interesting blog. Just the sort of thing we need to read at election time.

    1. Author

      Thanks Sarah.

  4. Great article, thank you – interesting to get the take on the fact that of the 50,000 indigenous species, only about one-quarter have had their conservation status formally assessed and that marine species are particularly poorly served.

    I am involved in a community led initiative scientifically studying a sub-tidal reef 11km offshore, 23m depth off Patea, South Taranaki – we hope in our own small way to contribute to the understanding of ocean species – having sponges, hydroids, bryozoans, anemones, algae, ecklonia found on a mere 100m long 2-3m high, 80,000 year old reef – with potentially four sponge species new/of interest to science – despite the relatively short length of study we have conducted: http://www.projectreeflife.org.
    We do numerous community presentations on our work – and your blog information certainly provides some insightful points that we will share – to help promote understanding of the state of New Zealand’s indigenous species.

    1. Author

      Thank you Karen.
      By the way, I enjoy seeing your south Taranaki observations on NatureWatch. I try to help out with the seaweeds, but am still learning them myself.
      Seaweeds are one of the groups for which New Zealand doesn’t have a formal conservation assessment. An amazing number of NZ seaweeds are known from very few places. But as we keep looking, including through citizen science efforts, maybe we’ll find some of them to be more common than now thought.

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