Our ailing nature

Date:  10 May 2019

Dr Alison Collins is the Ministry for the Environment’s Departmental Chief Science Advisor - Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua. Alison reflects on the recently released United Dr Alison Collins photoNations report on biodiversity and why we need to care about what is happening in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our ailing nature

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point”.

The message is sobering. This quote from Professor Sandra Díaz paints a stark picture of our communities – local and global – where that safety net is quite clearly starting to unravel. Professor Díaz would know. She co-chaired the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The sheer numbers of those involved in the report tell us just how comprehensive it is: 145 experts from 50 countries working over three years systematically reviewing more than 15,000 scientific and government reports, drawing on indigenous and local knowledge.

The findings are startling to say the least. Close to one million plant and animal species are facing extinction, many within decades, because of human activities. The authors conducted a thorough analysis of the available evidence and have ranked five key threats to nature.  

In descending order of impact, they are: 

  1. Changes in land and sea use
  2. Direct exploitation of organisms
  3. Climate change
  4. Pollution
  5. Invasive alien species.

So how does this compare with our own recently released heath check on Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment?

Like the IPBES report, Environment Aotearoa 2019 (EA2019) brought together the best available data over the past three years from the environmental reporting programme, as well as a body of evidence from scientific literature and matauranga Māori.  

EA2019 highlighted nine of the most pressing issues affecting Aotearoa New Zealand. Like the IPBES report, the first issue revealed that our native plants, animals and ecosystems are in crisis. 3,747 native species are at risk or threatened with extinction (as reported between 2010 and 2018, in accordance with the NZ Threat Classification System). It should be noted that the conservation status of only 10,667 native species is actually known, which is just a fraction of the total number of species thought to exist in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It’s not good news.  

If we were doing a roll call of what is either threatened or at risk of extinction it would like this:

  • 90% of seabirds
  • 84% of reptiles
  • 80% of shorebirds
  • 80% of native bat species
  • 76% of native freshwater fish
  • 74% of terrestrial birds 
  • 46% of vascular plants (can transport water and nutrients through the plant) 
  • 26% of marine mammals
  • 23% of mosses, hornworts and liverworts (non-vascular plants).

And it is not just individual species that are at risk.  For a small country we have a very diverse range of unique ecosystems. Some are naturally rare (like volcanic sand dunes) and others are also uncommon internationally (like braided rivers). Many of these ecosystems have been cleared, extensively altered and degraded.

Why is it happening?

The latest IPBES assessment mirrors the changes happening in Aotearoa New Zealand.  

The threats we see in our corner of the world include: 

  • The way we’ve changed our landscape – quite simply we’ve cleared our native forests, drained wetlands, and dredged and trawled our seas.  
  • The way we live in our cities/towns and how we use our land has polluted our waterways with nutrients, contaminants and heavy metals that are toxic to plants and fish in both freshwater and coastal marine environments.
  • We’ve introduced species such as stoats, possums and rats, and we’ve grown exotic plants in our gardens and kept pets in our homes (such as cats and dogs).  These all threaten our native species. 
  • There are also diseases and pathogens that are new to our country and threaten iconic species such as pōhutukawa, rata and kauri.  
  • And finally, climate change.  Climate change is and will continue to have a huge impact - affecting what can grow, thrive and survive, and where.

Why does it matter?

At the most fundamental level we depend on our ecosystems and ‘nature’s benefits’ for our physical wellbeing and life support. Our ecosystems cycle nutrients and provide us with clean water, clean air as well as our food and fuel. Healthy ecosystems are essential to the things we depend on for our continued existence.

Our native species and our ecosystems are also our taonga, our treasure and our identity. The ties between us and our biodiversity run deep. Consider birdsong as the sound of Aotearoa New Zealand – something recognised by many of us, not least tangata whenua. Or the silver fern (ponga) that has come to embody our spirit as Kiwis – the emblem we wear when we stand tall on the world stage. 

With all of this in mind, we here in Aotearoa New Zealand have a global responsibility. This country is home to species found nowhere else in the world: the kākāpō, the world’s only nocturnal flightless parrot; the giant wētā / wētā punga, insects that can weigh more than a mouse; and Māui dolphin, the world’s smallest dolphin.

What can we take away from these two reports?

We must use this information to remind ourselves of the threats our country and our globe are facing.

The key takeaways from the IPBES and EA2019 reports are: 

  1. The assessments are stark, and indicate the ailing health of the natural world around us.
  2. The health and wellbeing of all of us fundamentally depends on nature.
  3. Indigenous knowledge including matauranga Māori and ecosystem science helps us to understand the principle of interconnectedness - where we are part of, not apart from, nature.
  4. Our actions in one locality or part of the world have impacts in another part of the globe.
  5. This generation, like those that have gone before, has a responsibility to future generations to ensure we leave behind a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity.
  6. And beyond all else - our choices and our actions matter – and how we go forward from here is up to all of us.