In conservation, we can fall victim to shifting baselines when our reference for conservation is only what we’ve lost in our lifetimes, but that’s all about to change, writes James Russell. 

The Government signalled a clear commitment to a predator-free New Zealand by 2050 with the substantial increase in conservation funding announced in its first Budget.

This included an extra $81.3m allocated to predator control for possums, stoats and rats over a further one million hectares – one of the first of the four 2025 interim goals under the Predator Free New Zealand banner which the Department of Conservation will now be on track to meet.

Meanwhile, government support from the Department of Conservation and Predator Free 2050 Ltd (a government company formed in 2016) for new projects like Predator Free Taranaki work towards the second of the four 2025 interim goals; eradicating predators from large blocks without the use of fences.

The Budget announcement reflects continual lobbying by the Green Party, which has been critical about the lack of a clear strategy, and funding, to meet the predator-free goal.

So, instead of the years of seeing the occasional battle for our birds, we could now be seeing an annual battle for our birds, for every year until it is won. Certainly that is the hope.

As a child I remember the many native birds in my suburban backyard and how, on holiday, I had to guard my lunch from free-roaming weka. But where are they now?

In conservation, we can fall victim to shifting baselines when our reference for conservation is only what we’ve lost in our lifetimes.

The gradual silencing that has fallen over vast tracts of our forest is in deep contrast to the cacophony of song that would have been at maximum volume before humans arrived, bringing with them the wide range of predators that continue to pose a major threat to our native birds and other animals.

But predators are not the only threat to New Zealand’s native species. Invasive plants are on the march over the countryside and around our cities while newer, tiny microorganisms bringing diseases such as kauri dieback, myrtle rust and Mycoplasma bovis are the invaders of the future, threatening a range of ecosystems and our agriculture industry. We know climate change will likely bring an increase in severe drought, rising sea levels and severe weather events, but its exact effects on individual species is challenging to predict.

Recently a volunteer community trapper in the Waitakere Ranges found the elusive grey-faced petrel breeding in a tiny local suburban reserve. This discovery is bringing this species back into the living memory of the local community and demonstrating that baselines can be shifted positively, from aiming to eradicate predators from islands, to entire countries.

In announcing its Budget, the coalition Government has shown a credible commitment to conservation and while there will never be enough money for all needs, there can always be enough to fund fairly and create a sustainable future.

Associate Professor James Russell is from the University of Auckland. He has received the 2018 Distinguished Service Award for the Oceania Section of the Society for Conservation Biology.

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