by Andi Cockroft
Earlier this week I had a wonderful meeting with a conservationist from India who was visiting to research conservation strategies in New Zealand.
Her most insightful comment is that unlike India where conservation involves co-existence strategies, New Zealand pursues a “Kill Everything” campaign.
In India apparently, the problems of conservation surround to a large extent encouraging people to find ways to co-exist with animals such as tigers or elephants – both of which can have real nuisance if not lethal impacts on humans.
Persuading villagers to embrace the big cats and larger mammals as a valued part of an overall ecosystem is difficult but is where the government sees the future lies.
Whereas in New Zealand, even after nearly 60 years of non-stop poisoning in our “Pest Phobia” Kill Everything fervour, all we seem to achieve is pushing rare and endangered species to the brink of extinction.
Our visiting conservationist was clearly shocked that we continue to follow this single-minded agenda that has failed so abysmally to date.
The Indian visitor was not the first to identify the hatred by some official circles to wild animals.
In 1958, a US zoologist Dr William Graf came to New Zealand on behalf of the state of Hawaii. Hawaii was considering liberating deer but hearing of New Zealand’s “deer menace”, sent the zoologist to investigate.
Dr Graf was escorted by government officers. Afterwards, he expressed shock at official attitudes towards deer and termed them as representing “an anti-exotic animal phobia.”
“Many government officials do not and cannot view the situation in an objective perspective,” he said.
A Forest Service departmental head – a scientist – Lindsay Poole reacted strongly and publicly criticised Dr Graf accusing the US professor of not seeing forests not inhabited by deer to thus know “what a true New Zealand rain forest looks like.”
The outburst and attack were remarkable. After all, NZ Forest Service staff had escorted Dr Graf around the country.
But the Forest Service head seemed ignorant of the evolution of New Zealand’s forests that had evolved through millions of years of browsing largely by a dozen subspecies of a flightless bird called the moa, plus canopy browsers such as kereru (pigeon), kokako and others.
The sentence of death had been laid down in 1930 at the Deer Menace Conference master-minded by an amateur botanist Leonard Cockayne.
In 1983 a world-renowned ecologist New Zealander Dr Graeme Caughley published a book “The Deer Wars” in which he analysed Cockayne’s hatred of deer.
“Cockayne passionately hated deer,” said Dr Caughley. “When it came to deer, Cockayne could not think straight.”
Cockayne’s dogma was based on the false assumption that New Zealand’s forests before deer, had never been browsed. He was completely wrong.
Dr Caughley pointed out browsing by birds such as the flightless moa had been a strong evolutionary factor in shaping New Zealand’s vegetation. The dozen or so sub-species of moa became extinct about 1300 and Dr Caughley said “the sudden termination (of browsing)–led to marked changes (in the vegetation.)”
When the early European settlers saw New Zealand’s vegetation about 1840, without browsing for 500 years, it had become far denser than the previous moa-browsed one over millions of years.
Once deer became established, the browsing component was restored to the vegetation, turning it more towards its original state of the moa era.
How many Deer?
Does New Zealand have too many deer today?
Well not according to New Zealand’s Landcare Research, who in 2001 estimated the national wild deer population at 250,000.
That means deer numbers in New Zealand (250,000) are about one-eighth of the United Kingdom’s wild deer population – two million (2009).
But while the UK endeavour to manage deer, New Zealand’s authorities retain the idea of “pests that must be killed.”
New Zealanders generally and more particularly the Department of Conservation, need to embrace a philosophy of living with and managing animals.
Extermination is not management.