Mainland islands: a new paradigm for conservation?

  • Since its creation in 2004, the Maungatautari Ecological Island is the largest mainland island in New Zealand. This ecological “island” has completely eradicated 14 mammalian pests.
  • The management of mainland islands has brought together mutual stakeholders while the international attention has attracted travelers from around the world and boosted the economy.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone.
A pair of critically endangered Takahē released on Maungatautari Mountain. Image in the public domain provided by the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust
A pair of critically endangered Takahē released on Maungatautari Mountain. Image in the public domain provided by the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust

Imagine yourself surrounded by wispy branches, by an echoing chorus of bird songs, and by the scrutinizing gazes of lizards. You may ask yourself, where am I? The answer is…complicated, for you have found yourself neither in a zoo, nor in the wild. You are somewhere in between: a mainland island.

The ‘mainland island’ is a new type of conservation inspired by the widespread success of pest eradication and the subsequent return of native flora and fauna on offshore islands in New Zealand. But unlike real islands, the mainland island model uses predator-proof fences to create a barrier isolating the reserve from adjacent landscapes, much like what oceans do for offshore islands. While some academics such as University of Canterbury professor, R. Paul Scofield, are skeptical of their success, projects like the Maungatautari Reserve in the Waikato region of New Zealand reveal a new potential for ecosystem reserves: their cultural services. The success of mainland islands is evident not only in the revival of native ecosystems, but also in the ways they have benefitted local and national communities. The management of mainland islands has brought together mutual stakeholders while the international attention has attracted travelers from around the world and boosted the economy.

The predator-proof fence found in Maungatautari. Image in the public domain provided by the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust.
The predator-proof fence found in Maungatautari. Image in the public domain provided by the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust.

New Zealand is internationally recognized for its progressive and active conservation and restoration programs. In part this is likely due to its unique geologic and anthropologic history, beginning 85 million years ago when New Zealand separated from the supercontinent Gondwana. Since this split predated the evolution of mammals, New Zealand’s flora and fauna were free to evolve for millions of years without the pressure of mammalian predators. That is, until the arrival of the first people (now known as Maori) about 1,000 years ago, who brought with them kiore or rats (Rattus norvegicus, Rattus rattus). Much later, only 200 years ago, Europeans (also called pakeha) brought a second wave of mammals often referred to as “pests,” including mice (Mus musculus), hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus occidentalis), stoats (Mustela erminea), possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), deer (Cervus), cats (Felis catus), dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), and sheep (Ovis aries).

The years following human settlement were filled with the extinction of many species, most notably flightless birds, which had not evolved to defend against mammalian predators. The pressure of human settlement also had dire impacts on local species.

One such example are the nine species of moas, large flightless birds that once thrived in New Zealand and suddenly went extinct following the arrival of people. A combination of overhunting and habitat destruction ultimately led to the demise of these iconic legends, some of which grew to over three meters tall.

While the arrival of people marked the start of numerous extinctions in addition to the moas, more recently nationwide investments have led to the salvation and restoration of many species, such as the kea (Nestor notabilis) and the wrybill (Ngutu pare). Species conservation has been possible in large part due to the enactment of the Conservation Act of 1987, which marked the start of New Zealand’s conservation and restoration-minded era.

The legislation established the Department of Conservation (DOC) to oversee and manage New Zealand’s natural and historic resources. The DOC has also played a major role in partnering with local restoration efforts, such as mainland islands.

Since its creation in 2004, the Maungatautari Ecological Island is the largest mainland island in New Zealand. This ecological “island” has completely eradicated 14 mammalian pests including hedgehogs, ship rats, stoats, rabbits, and possums. In turn, they have successfully reintroduced birds such as the kiwi (Apteryx), the kaka (Nestor meridionalis), the hihi (Notiomystis cincta), and the tieke (Philesturnus), as well as other fauna such at the Mahoenui Giant Weta (Deinacrida mahoenui), which is similar to a cricket only much larger.

Tieke (Philesturnus rufusater) on a flax flower. Photo courtesy of Adam Mark Lenny under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.
Tieke (Philesturnus rufusater) on a flax flower. Photo courtesy of Adam Mark Lenny under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

The removal of pests has also contributed to the continued success of conifer, broadleaf, and podocarp forests. In 2009, the reserve was recognized as one of the ‘Top 25’ ecological restoration projects by the Global Restoration Network.

Aside from its ecological success, Maungatautari has also brought together a community of people with a shared interest and passion in New Zealand wildlife. Co-managed by a board of trustees that includes five mana whenua, Maori who belong to local iwi or tribes, five landowners, and five representatives from the local and national agencies. Maungatautari has become an integral part of the Waikato community.

Its unique wildlife attractions and accessibility has drawn in families, students, and tourists alike. Their unique educational component, “The Sanctuary Mountain Classroom” in particular, has cultivated community outreach to students of all ages. The education program, including an onsite education facility, offers a curriculum that explores the rich history of New Zealand’s biodiversity and conservation techniques.

Another distinguishing component is the co-management of the reserve by both pakeha and Maori. By no means is this a complete solution to settler-colony related social injustices in New Zealand. Nevertheless, it creates opportunities for cooperation and shared responsibility between both communities. New Zealanders are unified by their shared passion for preserving native ecosystems — something that many other countries would do well to replicate.

The success of Maungatautari also reflects the flourishing international tourism presence that New Zealand has recently taken on. New Zealand has begun marketing itself as “100% Pure New Zealand” an image that entices every rustic, adventure loving, outdoor enthusiast around the world. As one of New Zealand’s largest industries, second only to dairy, tourism has become an essential national investment. Mainland islands such as Maugatautari offer tourists an exclusive opportunity to experience New Zealand (and to see a kiwi in its natural habitat!)

As concern for native flora and fauna grows, we must look to New Zealand’s model for ideas. Climate change and subsequent environmental shifts have challenged the Western image of wilderness or wild — as a place untouched by humans. It is time we shift our romanticized conservation to include a vision that allows for the coexistence of people with native flora and fauna. Maungatautari is a perfect example of how the restoration and conservation of threatened native ecosystems can thrive, provide cultural values, unite communities, and support local and national economies. The key is human passion and support.

Environmentalists around the world must start to look for more creative ways to “save the environment,” and shift away from projects that isolate people from the wild to ones that engage and facilitate appreciation.

This commentary was produced under the Macalester College Student Voices project.

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