Our birds are dying

Birds such as the Kea could soon be gone, warns Jan Wright. Photo: Getty

Refusing to go quietly, the departing Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has fired a broadside at the Government about the plight of New Zealand’s birds, calling for a tourist levy to pay for their protection and continued use of 1080 poison. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A third of our native birds, including the Kea and Blue Duck, are facing extinction if serious action is not taken, a new report warns.

Taonga of an island nation: Saving New Zealand’s birds has also found that another 48 percent of our 168 species are also in some trouble, while only 20 percent are "doing okay".

Prepared by Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the report describes our native birds' situation as desperate and one that will not be fixed without significant effort and money.

Sitting in the “serious trouble” category are 54 species.

They include the well-known Kea and the Whio, or blue duck, which adorns our $10 note, along with lesser-known species such as the Rock Wren and the Hihi.

Wright suggests a tourist levy be immediately introduced to raise funds for their protection.

The report adds weight to last year’s publication Our Marine Environment jointly produced by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand.

It found 90 percent of the country’s seabirds were threatened with or at risk of extinction because of reasons including fishing bycatch, introduced predators, and habitat change.

Wright will step down from the position in October, after a decade-long stint.

This report will be her last major piece of work and is a major attack on a perceived lack of action in protecting our native species.

Earlier this year Wright told Newsroom that the report would not be pretty reading when released, and she’s right.

Predator Free 2050

The Government’s plan to completely wipe out all predators from New Zealand is a lofty target.

It includes four interim goals by 2025: to increase the area of mainland where possums, rats and stoats are suppressed by one million hectares; eradicate the three pests from 20,000 hectares without fences; eradicate all predators from offshore nature reserves; and develop a science breakthrough that could wipe out at least one small predator from the mainland.

Wright says the "Predator Free 2050" plan has been rightly lauded as a big step forward and is ambitious and inspiring.

But little detail has been provided about how it will be achieved and it will take a lot more money to turn things around.

Wright says it is also unclear how the newly-created Crown entity Predator Free 2050 Ltd, will interact with other organisations, such as the Department of Conservation, which has different mandates and priorities.

An immediate plan of action needs to be formulated and a committee created, incorporating the best scientific minds.

“We cannot wait for long-term breakthrough science before stepping up predator control. If we do, the patient will die before the hospital is built.”

1080 and inbreeding

Wright has spoken out in the past in support of the poison 1080, and has again reiterated her belief in its importance in this report.

She says it is essential 1080 aerial drops continue, because of the poison's unmatched ability to quickly kill predators over large inaccessible areas.

It is also cheap and a vital tool to tackle the rodents and stoats that erupt in mast years - the years when trees flower heavily and produce more fruit and seeds than normal, providing ample food for predators.

The Government has allocated $21 million in the Budget for this year’s beech forest mast, which is expected to be heavy.

Wright says trapping and ground baiting also have an important role to play, and developing a long-lasting lure for stoats would be an important breakthrough.

Her report also singles out the inbreeding of our native bird species as a serious threat to their survival.

While many people think we have brought the Kākāpō back from extinction, this was incorrect, she says, as it is still teetering on the edge due to inbreeding.
Many eggs are infertile and the only way to ensure their survival may be to genetically engineer them.

Wright acknowledges this is a controversial suggestion that will likely meet opposition, but recommends the Government begin engaging with the public about the potential uses for genetic techniques to control predators and protect birdlife.

“On Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf, a kōkako named Bandit is consorting with his grandmother. This may be a happy relationship, but it is unlikely to be a healthy one. We must guard against our birds drifting to the shallow end of the gene pool."

Tax tourists to save our birds?

The army of foreign tourists arriving on our shores are ripe for contributing to our bird's survival, Wright says.

She calls for the introduction of a nature border levy, payable by tourists, to bring in new revenue that could be targeted to saving our birds.

The method is used overseas and further charges, such as making tourists pay for car parks and national attractions, are also worth exploring, she says.

While the right of New Zealanders to explore the country for free should not change, there is no reason why overseas tourists should not pay to visit our national parks.

"The more that user pay charges can cover the provision of infrastructure and services, the more money there will be available for protecting birds adn other ecological treasures, provided Vote Conservation is not reduced."

Wright is not the first to call for a levy on visitors to raise much-needed money.

Labour has campaigned on a “modest” levy collected at the border to help pay for infrastructure, and the party’s tourism spokesperson Kris Faafoi recently told Newsroom part of that could be diverted into improving training for the tourism industry.

Currently, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and the city’s council is pushing forward with a proposal for controversial “pillow tax” on hotels.

But the Government is no fan of the idea, with Tourism Minister Paula Bennett concerned it would make New Zealand look like a “rip-off”.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts agrees with almost everything in the report, but is vehemently opposed to a tourist tax at the border.

He says there are arguments for charging for things such as carparks and access to popular destinations, but a targeted tax on international visitors was “passing the buck”.

“Our birds are endangered because of the actions of New Zealanders over the generations, our visitors haven’t endangered those birds, our visitors won’t endanger our birds when they come to New Zealand so why are we looking to tax them? We as New Zealanders have to take responsibility, we caused the problem, we have to fix it.”

The Green response

The Greens argue it is not only our birds' futures that are at risk because of the Government’s underfunding of the Department of Conservation (DOC).

The party believes that, adjusting for inflation, $422 million has been cut out of Vote Conservation since National took office, with DOC given $26m less in this year’s Budget than in 2008.

Greens conservation spokesperson Mojo Mathers hopes the report will be a wake-up call for the Government, which needs to stump up with better funding if it is serious about protecting native birds.

She supports the continued use of 1080 and a tourism levy to help fund the predator-free goal, but is cautious about the use of genetic solutions.

“Possums are a protected species in Australia. It would be a disaster if, in our drive to eradicate them here in New Zealand, we were responsible for their extinction overseas.”

Kevin Hackwell, Forest & Bird's campaigns and advocacy manager, says the report adds weight to the underfunding issue for the environment.

"The reality is, of course, that the DOC biodiversity funding is $150m, which is absolute chicken feed for protecting our species."

He disagrees with the idea of a tourist levy and says more funding should come from the Government itself.

Tourism generates billions of dollars in revenue from GST alone, so there was no need for money to be gathered from visitors, he says.

"We don't have to charge people for carparks and we shouldn't be turning our rangers into carpark attendants."

What does the Government say?

Asked for her reaction to the report, Conservation Minister Maggie Barry was staunch regarding funding for the environment.

“I would say this, $107m in this year’s Budget is not underfunding, $100m over the past six years from partnerships and businesses is a very big boost to conversation. DOC always spends more money on its natural heritage than it does on its recreational side, and always has.

“Under our Government in the last eight years DOC spending has gone up by 20 percent, and those are the facts.”

Barry said the chief executive of Predator Free 2050 would be announced next week and an action plan would begin to take shape following that.

A border tax of any sort had been ruled out, but a new computer booking system was being introduced at DOC that would allow graduated charging.

This would mean international tourists and their children would pay more than New Zealanders to access facilities such as carparks and huts on the Great Walks.

It was likely to be introduced next year, Barry said.

Regarding genetic science, the Minister said there was currently no social licence in New Zealand for it - but it was time to start having the discussion.

“I’m very well aware that many people are uneasy about genetic modification or engineering, but this is not what this is about.”