Conservation is about protecting the natural environment for future generations. It seems the right thing to do and almost everyone agrees with that. 

But there is a lot of conservation to do and many different ways of doing it. And so conservationists debate a lot among themselves about what the priorities should be and how we should achieve them. These debates help us to make the best we can from limited time and funding.

In New Zealand, mainstream conservation has been about preserving our most iconic native species and restoring habitats to some semblance of how they were in the past. To achieve this, controlling exotic, introduced species has been a focus and the former National government’s Predator Free 2050 policy is the most vivid example of this approach.

But we think there are other priorities for conservation and other approaches to it beyond just species eradication and ecosystem restoration. We think these need to be considered and debated. It is being debated in other countries and a rich literature has emerged from it, but just not so much in New Zealand.

Others disagree with this debate, though. 

Recently, the debate took a turn for the worse when Dr James Russell at the University of Auckland (with Professor Tim Blackburn at University College London) published an article calling other scholars, mostly fellow scientists, “science denialists” for being critical of the science of invasion biology. Then Professor Anthony Ricciardi and Rachael Ryan at the University of Montreal published a list of “invasive species denialists” – people they considered “guilty” of questioning aspects of their discipline. 

Progress suffers when, instead of engaging with the ideas of a debate, arguments shift to personal attacks and name-calling. It seems especially troubling to us that this behaviour is coming from other scientists.

Criticism is the foundation of better science. And yet critics of invasion biology, in particular, are being dissuaded from communicating their ideas lest they are labelled and abused too. We wonder if the name-calling by leading invasion biologists indicates that their science, at least in its current form, is past the peak of its usefulness.   

We’d like to clean up the debate about conservation in New Zealand, and elsewhere, and direct it back into constructive territory. 

To this end, we invited Emma Marris, author of The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, to visit New Zealand. Emma is one of the world’s leading authors on how we should approach conservation in the 21st century. We asked her to give a public lecture and participate in a panel discussion about the future of biodiversity conservation in New Zealand. Emma doesn’t have all ‘the answers’, of course, but she is a great advocate for illuminating some of the options. 

Rather than engaging in futile attempts to eradicate well-established species from the entire country, we should instead work to find ways of helping native biodiversity survive despite them. 

Ultimately, we think the greatest problem with present-day conservation is its focus on fighting change and dedication to protecting the past, not building for the future.

New Zealand’s environments and biodiversity have changed, will continue to change, and cannot be put back to how they used to be. The ecosystems of the past and their communities of plants and animals are no longer compatible with our changing climate and the other dominant influences of our people. They need to adapt.

Our priorities and approaches to conservation are failing to keep pace with the speed of change in the natural world. That’s why, after years of persuing our current approach, we’re still talking about a biodiversity crisis. More of the same will not solve that. Instead, we need to start re-designing our conservation policies to more fully incorporate the changes we have brought to our environments, and to work with, rather than against, those currents.  

Rather than restoring biodiversity to some original condition, conservation should instead focus on adapting biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems to what is in front of them. That is what sustainability and resilience is all about. Rather than engaging in futile attempts to eradicate well-established species from the entire country, we should instead work to find ways of helping native biodiversity survive despite them. 

Should our conservation efforts shift from restoring and eradicating to reconciling and adapting?

We think so, because in a changing world even what we preserve and restore will eventually have to reconcile itself with the realities of the future. Everywhere and everything that conservationists do, whether we like it or not, is a negotiation with change. 

We believe our challenge as conservationists is not to leave these changes to chance but to purposefully work to build the ecosystems of the future.

‘Defining wildness in a changed world’, a public lecture by Emma Marris, Thursday 9 November, 6pm–7.30pm, Memorial Theatre, Student Union Building, Kelburn Campus, Victoria University of Wellington; ‘The fight for nature: a public debate on the future of conservation in New Zealand’, chaired by RNZ National’s Kathryn Ryan, featuring Emma Marris, Associate Professor Wayne Linklater, Dr Jamie Steer and other panellists, Friday 10 November, 2.30pm–5.30pm, Lecture Theatre 3, Government Buildings, 55 Lambton Quay, Pipitea Campus, Victoria University of Wellington. Both events are free but registration is necessary beforehand by emailing

Leave a comment