Our quick trip around the South Island took us through an astonishing array of landscapes in a very short time. One moment we were standing on a rocky glacial moraine, and the next in a torrential rainforest downpour.
The Southern Alps looked like they had sprung a thousand leaks, gushing waterfalls out of every face as we wound through them, all but their fern-blanketed feet shrouded in the long white cloud that is Aotearoa – and then suddenly we were on the eastern side, in dry Wanaka.
On our final leg to Dunedin, on the east coast, the rain resumed – but overhead we spotted a helicopter carrying water to a fire. Our hosts there told us that there has been a total fire ban for months. This was a bit hard to believe given the amount of rain we’d experienced in the past week, but you could see it in the brown undercoat of the otherwise green vegetation. I found myself admiring the smooth, undulating patterns of the steep hillsides, but then realized that the green velvety appearance that makes them attractive from a distance is due to severe disturbance. They are heavily logged and grazed, and most of what the sheep and cattle didn’t eat, the rabbits have. Up close, I searched for plants of more redeeming value than being the only things the livestock and rabbits rejected. Thistle and sharp-spined gorse ruled the landscape.
This growing awareness that New Zealand’s current biodiversity includes huge numbers of introduced and invasive species has left me dismayed at times. I often have the same overwhelmed reaction in the US, but New Zealand is so relatively small and biologically isolated, its ecosystems feel far more fragile and susceptible to disturbance.
When we arrived at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Dunedin on Thursday, I felt a surge of relief. Here, tucked away on a hillside far above the city, is a section of land that has been fenced, introduced mammals removed, and native plantings restored.
Unlike Australia with its many native marsupials, New Zealand’s only native land mammals are three species of bat, one of which is thought to be extinct. Many of its endemic bird species were and are flightless, with few predators. Introduced mammals such as stoats, cats, dogs, possums, and even hedgehogs have thrived on easily accessible prey.
It has taken strong measures to counter the devastating effect on endemic species. Creating a completely predator-proof environment has been the only means of protecting and restoring threatened populations, either through fencing or by relocating them on islands where all predators have been removed. At the Orokonui sanctuary, the fences allow most birds to come and go, to breed and nest and feed undisturbed. Those that are flightless, like the kiwi, may grow up here and then be released into other protected sanctuaries such as the one we saw signs for near Okarito.
The effort to protect and restore endemic species in both Tasmania and New Zealand is closely linked to education. This may seem like an obvious connection, but the routes to species decline and extinction are often obscured. Direct education is crucial to involving as many generations as possible in the process of conserving species and creating sustainable ecosystems. I was fortunate to get acquainted with Nel Smit, education strategist at Greening Australia, whose work in Hobart is based in a “six green star” learning center. The facility itself is an inspiration, beautifully designed and filled with evidence of projects that engage young people in restoring Tasmania’s native vegetation and wildlife, working in partnership with the public educational system. I loved seeing the “down under” version of what our nature centers in the US do: different species, same ideas. https://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/project/sustainability-learning-centre.
The possibilities at Hobart’s Sustainability Learning Centre and the Orokonui Ecosanctuary give me hope and have fueled my anticipation for my next learning phase and the heart of this journey in Wellington. My new host city also hosts an ecosanctuary, Zealandia, where I hope to get involved and investigate the experiences of school groups in learning about biodiversity through direct exposure and interaction with endemic species. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve landed in a sanctuary myself, in a house perched high on a hillside overlooking Wellington, and with birds and butterflies I have yet to meet in the garden just outside my window.