Walk on the wild side
Keep reading for just $1
$1 trial for two weeks, thereafter $8.50 every two months, cancel any time
Already a subscriber? Sign in
Signed in as . Sign out
Throughout human history we have vilified and sought to destroy predators which attack and kill our kind. But in a striking reversal of hundreds of thousands of years of human behaviour, we now acknowledge that our predators themselves are threatened, and in 2007 we afforded full protection for the great white shark, the only man-eater wild in New Zealand territory. However this sea-change is only symptomatic of a broader shift in attitudes to conservation. Driven by the unbridled expansion of human population and the consequent destruction of the natural environment, we have witnessed the collapse of numerous significant forests, wetlands, oceans and alpine zones, and with them the species that depend on those habitats. Now, as the spectre of 2ºC warming looms, a quarter of the species on the planet face annihilation. Never has the conservation mandate been so urgent. In response, we are using increasingly aggressive methods to prevent the course of decline. We uproot entire populations of birds and airlift them to offshore islands where they are safe from introduced predators—a method we might use to rescue diplomats from war-zones, not flightless wrens from the jaws of a stoat. Similarly we toss potent poison from planes, raining it down through national parks, a necessary evil to keep invaders in check. We bait and trap, catch and kill, slaughtering thousands of hapless stoats, rats and possums. We use gene warfare, fertility-busting paste and all manner of hideous devices to exterminate some species, in order to save others. Taking this course of active conservation ultimately attracts accusations of “playing God”. The selective logic by which we label endemic species as worthy of protection and introduced species as filthy vermin to slaughter probably has animal rights implications, as do the methods of control, and sodium monofluoroacetate, or 1080, is one of the most controversial. Yet 1080 has also saved dozens of species from extinction. Incidentally, we have played God before, when we introduced possums, rabbits and stoats in the first place. Killing some animals to save others along boundaries of primitive dispersal (and at enormous cost) seems a little bizarre, but letting a disaster of our own making run its course is not an option either. Most New Zealanders are resigned to these dualities—we kill to protect, and even protect those predators that kill us—in order to conserve a unique environment that we cherish. In this issue we delve into these paradoxes of New Zealand conservation, debunk some of the myths that have plagued 1080 poison and explore the mysteries of great white sharks, our most fearsome predator. We also look at rock wrens, which are being chased uphill by stoats and climate change, and the DNA of kelp which reveals traces of ancient climate change. There are answers in some of the most unexpected places.
Virtually all the snapper caught in a recent survey along the west coast of the North Island grew up in the same nursery. This is the finding of research conducted by NIWA, in which scientists examined the carbon and oxygen isotopes of snapper ear bones, known as otoliths. The snapper came from a wide range of places, from Ninety Mile Beach to Mana Island off the Kapiti Coast. Yet, as fisheries ecologist Mark Morrison discovered, 98 per cent of the fish had a distinctive chemical signature that can be matched to the environmental profile of Kaipara waters. The study is part of a programme to understand the country’s ailing $32 m snapper fishery, which has suffered quota cuts as a result of over-fishing. Morrison is now exploring a link between the poor health of the Kaipara Harbour and low snapper numbers at sea. The impacts of land management—such as forest clearance and fertiliser use—have fl ow-on effects for shallow harbours, he says, silting up waterways and stifling the growth of seagrass beds vital to young fish. “These findings show how fragile some New Zealand snapper and other coastal fish stocks could be.” As you might expect, a low number of juvenile fish in the harbour will impact upon the larger coastal ecosystem. Morrison also notes that other west coast harbours were probably once important snapper nurseries that have since collapsed. “Now that we know more about where the important nurseries are, we need to know why snapper larvae settle there, and how we can stop degradation of their habitat".
What's a super-fast robotic telescope doing among Bill Allen’s sauvignon blanc vines in Blenheim? Exploring the early Universe! The BOOTES-3 telescope has been purpose-built to observe gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) which signal extremely high-energy explosions—the most violent events in the Universe. The primary candidates for the longer versions of these phenomena are hypernovae—exceptionally large stars that collapse into black holes, releasing energetic jets of plasma in their death throes. This class of massive star is believed to have dominated the Universe around 200 million years after the Big Bang, and studying GRBs provides a window into this early epoch. Which is all well and good, but these are ephemeral events—blink and you miss them. In order to study what happens during a burst you need a telescope with super-fast reaction time. Remote spacecraft, like NASA’s Fermi, detect the first signals of GRBs and fire approximate positional information down to Earth. Using these data, the BOOTES-3 telescope swings into position in seconds to observe the transient optical flash (or emission) that occurs simultaneously with the initial burst of gamma-rays, thus pinpointing the GRB for larger (slower) telescopes to observe its afterglow. BOOTES-3 is part of a network headed by Alberto Castro of the In- stitute for Astrophysics of Andalucía, and is the result of a collaboration that involves Stardome Observatory, Massey University and the Universities of Auckland and Canterbury. Locating the third telescope of this Spanish series under clear Blenheim skies greatly enhances the programme’s existing terrestrial coverage. And it gives New Zealand scientists an opportunity to peer deep through space, perhaps to the birth of the Cosmos.
New research has revealed that New Caledonia and New Zealand are joined at the hip, albeit some 1100 km deep inside the Earth’s core. That’s according to an international research team of geologists, headed by Monash University geoscientist, Wouter Schellart, who fired seismic waves into the Tasman seabed and discovered the interred remains of a long-buried land bridge. Researchers believe this land bridge was destroyed when colliding tectonic plates forced it deep into the Earth 20–50 million years ago. The subduction of this plate which is about 70 km thick, 2500 km long and 700 km wide—left behind a chain of volcanic islands, the only thing that remained of this former stretch of land. The island chain would have been important for the migration of certain plant and animal species at that time, and the research confirms a theory long held by some ecologists who have also documented similarities in the biotas of the two countries. “We saw a large number of similarities between New Caledonia and northern New Zealand in terms of geology, structure, volcanism and timing,” explains Schellart. Both countries are fragments of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, both lack native terrestrial mammals and share a number of plant genera such as Weinmannia, Metrosideros and Elaeocarpus, and many tree ferns. Relatives of New Zealand’s kauri, rimu and matai are also found in New Caledonia. The connection could also explain the curious presence of some butterflies in New Zealand (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 95), such as the coppers, also found in New Guinea but not Australia. Schellart’s paper, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, may also add fuel to an ongoing debate over whether proto-New Zealand—the landmass once known as Zealandia—was completely submerged between 22 and 25 million years ago. Submergence supporters propose that all of New Zealand’s flora and fauna was wiped out by the inundation, and that the ancestors of today’s biota must have later flown, drifted or been blown here. The counter view is that much of it was already aboard Zealandia when it drifted across the Tasman Sea after breaking away from Gondwana, the primal southern supercontinent, around 80 million years ago. Supporters of the Gondwanan ark theory insist that re-colonists would not have been able to fly, waft or drift the vast Pacific distances, but Schellart’s island chain of stepping stones may rekindle the argument.
In the South Island’s remote subalpine regions, a highly terrestrial songbird—one of two surviving species of New Zealand wren—has hopped, chirped and flown in the face of extinction.
May attempts to write poems about stars and trees have been invariably foolhardy. Poems might require leaps of faith but with stars, starlight, moonlight, the leap is almost insuperable. Superman himself would disappear and flicker out. There is a line in one of my early poems Stars through tree crowns, How perfectly and with such a leap /the leaves become stars. There was the evening when, perhaps thinking of my mother who used to get up at night and stand out under the stars, I gave myself a dare. Sitting on the back step, stars above, notebook below, I commanded myself to write something about stars. Now. Look up and they’re word perfect I began some waffle about molecular structures like winding stairs But there are a few lines I would still pass:and the explanation of plants, their roots that may be of air or earth, wherever the desirable water is, a loving gaze. I’d rather watch starlight than 100 brides. My garden has hundred-year-old pohutukawa trees that in summer cool the air like great fans. Coming up the drive from dinner or drinks I look up at the silvery sheen on their tops and wish I knew, atom by atom, what exactly is happening. For there is nothing static here, nothing even as calm as a heartbeat. These topmost leaves can be seen particularly to advantage in a friend’s back garden. Beginning by his bean patch a narrow corridor of ash, beech, conifer and elm make a vista, as finely imagined in size, shape and tone as if their planting had been directed by Capability Brown. The topmost leaves are delicately defined. Starlight falling on them, I imagine, must have some of the pulsating wildness of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. This friend is an astronomer so I ask him to explain it. He lets me down gently. The phosphorescent glow on the camellia is a combination of starlight, moonlight, reflected light from planets and zodiacal light. Zodiacal light, he explains, is the diffuse light that differentiates the sky from the earth on moonless nights. The energy I am watching is a plant’s visible (invisible in daylight) reaction to any light source. “It might even be your eyeballs,” he goes on in a soothing fashion. “The tremulous energy may be the effect on the human eye of dampness in the night air, the same dampness that causes the leaf to vibrate. Think of light trembling on water.” He also says, “Your job is to present it as a metaphor.” So if I have an explanation I have not lost the image or the effect of it. This amazing interaction between starlight and leaf. The apparent energy which seems to lick the leaf margins of the camellia or pour a cloak of shimmering light over the pohutukawas. At midnight I look at the crown of the camellia where small leaves are striving—now one leaf is ahead, now another—and the dance that seems to be taking place in the air above. I shall simply go on drawing the attention of guests to this phenomenon when I escort them to their cars. I think of Byron, himself a great lover of space, and his lines, destined for stuffy and suffocating drawing rooms. Swooning lines. She walks in beauty, like the night. Perhaps, just perhaps, those camellia leaf margins and aged pohutakawas are being watered by stars.
Arthur’s Pass National Park, 2 days A trip the Main Divide over Waimakariri Col is one of those must-do tramps on many people’s checklist. The gravel slog up the ‘Waimak’ perhaps puts some parties off this weekend excursion, but it shouldn’t, as the terrain is varied and interesting, and there is a very special little hut in which to spend a cosy night. If combined with an ascent of Mt Philistine on the second day, this tramp frequently requires the use of crampons and ice axes. However, if you do not have these skills you can descend the Rolleston River instead to reach the main highway north of Arthur’s Pass. This tramp would merit a ‘hard’ grade, as there are considerable stretches of steep sidling on scree. Although the terrain underfoot can appear monotonous, take time to appreciate the mosses, cushion plants and small shrubs that survive out on these often windswept river flats. The grander picture, however, is always dramatic, with peaks rising up on both sides of the valley. Rich green forests decorate their lower slopes and huge scree slides smother the upper reaches of these typical Arthur’s Pass mountains. The area around the Waimakariri Falls hut is worth exploring. The stream above is fringed with clusters of buttercups in November and December, and a cautious scramble above the gloomy depths of the chasm directly downstream reveals the erosive power of water as it plunges 80 m over this fault lip. Back down the valley, Mt Murchison (at 2408 m the highest peak in the park) dominates the southern skyline, while the route up to Waimakariri Col is clearly obvious up-valley. The Philistine–Rolleston Ridge is a spectacular place to be on a clear summer’s morning, but should be avoided in bad weather or poor visibility. It takes an hour or so along this delightfully airy ridgetop to reach the large bulk of 1967-m Mt Philistine, which dominates the view northwards. The final section involves some straightforward scrambling on the western side to the panoramic summit.
This kahu waero is a rare form of dog-cloak, distinctive for the tassels of dog hair decorating it, cut from the tail of a white-haired dog. According to Henry Roth in The Maori Mantle, such dogs slept in the house on clean mats, “so that their precious tails should be kept as white as possible... This operation of shaving its tail was quite unique...and was never performed by a common person.” Until recently, little was known about this exquisitely crafted garment, held in Te Papa, but this isn’t unusual; around 60 per cent of Maori taonga held in the museum are of unknown origin. However, much of the history of this particular cloak has been recovered, thanks to the research of Awhina Tamarapa, curator of taonga Maori at Te Papa. It’s a history that is, in many ways, emblematic of the histories of many museum artefacts—having been stolen, retrieved, and passed through various hands and institutions before, thankfully, ending up in the care of our national museum. As Tamarapa discovered, the cloak was made by Te Wharetoroa Tiniraupeka, also known as Margaret Graham, who was born in 1863 at Tarawera, survived the volcanic eruption of 1886, and died aged 101. It was purchased by the Dominion Museum in 1909. But what the museum curator didn’t know and nor, presumably, did the man who sold it, was that the cloak was stolen. This became apparent 12 years later when Tiniraupeka and her partner, George Graham, visited the museum and saw her cloak on display. Letters were written and eventually the cloak was returned to Graham’s Auckland law office in 1922, presumably to hold on Tiniraupeka’s behalf. In the 1930s, it was deposited in the Auckland Museum, as part of Graham’s personal Maori and Pacific collection, and returned again to Graham at his request in 1946. It’s unclear what happened to it then, until it turned up at a public auction house in Wellington in 1991 and was bought by the National Museum (now Te Papa) for $5000. Tamarapa’s research into the background of the cloak culminated in tracking down and interviewing Hilda Inia, Tiniraupeka’s grand-niece, who had been raised by her great-aunt in Rotorua, and who recalled a formidable, intelligent kuia and a shrewd businesswoman. Reconnecting descendants with taonga, says Tamarapa, is “one of the most rewarding aspects of curatorial work”. Some family members wanted the cloak returned, but Inia (who has since died) disagreed, telling Tamarapa that it was “safe in the museum...As far as I’m concerned, it will always be there...If they want to see it, they only have to look at the books, they’ll see where it is.”
Reaching more than six metres in length with a bite force of nearly two tonnes, the great white shark is the most fearsome predator on Earth. Yet despite their reputation as maneaters, great whites are protected in New Zealand as a vulnerable species.
This leg of the Discovery Highway is equal to anywhere on the South Island’s West Coast.
Recorded temperatures occurred across the state of Victoria on February 7 this year, contributing to the deadliest bushfires in Australian history, which ultimately killed 173 people and destroyed 1800 homes. Of the 35 climate stations in Victoria that have records going back 30 years or more, 24 recorded the hottest temperature ever, while five more recorded the highest temperature for the month of February. Melbourne reached 46.4ºC, the highest temperature since records began 154 years ago. It was also very dry. Many parts of Victoria had no rain at all during January. Melbourne had the driest start to the year on record with no rain for 35 days before the fires. And on February 7, record low relative humidity occurred, falling to five per cent in places, which dramatically increased the fire hazard. There could not have been more perfect conditions for bushfires. And when they eventually broke out, strong winds intensified the fires and spread the flames rapidly across the countryside, catching many victims on the roads as they tried to flee. A fatal change of wind direction in the late afternoon drove one fire into the town of Kinglake, where many died. Survivors described trees igniting instantly as a wall of flame 15 m high roared uphill, giving people only minutes to react. The extreme temperatures were caused by a stationary anticyclone over the Tasman Sea which produced persistent northerly winds over Victoria, assisted by an active monsoon trough bringing flooding rains to north Queensland. As water vapour condensed to form rain, large amounts of latent heat were released into the atmosphere. (Three quarters of the heating of the tropical atmosphere comes from this process.) As the air crossed the Great Dividing Range and flowed downhill it was further warmed by compression, before beginning the long journey south over the arid interior where it was warmed again by contact with hot land. Normally the air would be cooled a little by evaporating water from the soil or vegetation. However, the inland area was experiencing severe drought following the driest 12 years on record. By the time the air flow reached Victoria it was dry as dust, sucking any remaining moisture from the forest and creating a tinderbox. Recent studies have linked the persistent drought to patterns of the sea surface temperature across the tropical Indian Ocean. When the surface temperature is warmer than average at the western end of the tropical Indian Ocean, near Kenya, it tends to be colder than average at the eastern end, between northeast Australia and Indonesia. This phenomenon has been christened the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and shares some characteristics with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that affects the tropical Pacific Ocean. Like ENSO, the IOD has a marked effect on rainfall. In the current situation, known as the positive phase of the IOD, warmer waters near Africa enhance the rainfall there, while cooler waters between northwest Australia and Java suppress rainfall in that area, as well as downwind over southeast Australia. In the negative phase of the IOD, the pattern of sea temperature and rainfall is reversed. The IOD has now been in its positive phase for the last three years. Moreover, the IOD has either been positive or neutral every year since 1992, the longest such period since records began over 100 years ago. The extreme temperatures on the day of the fires came hard on the heels of a record-breaking heatwave in the last week of January. Melbourne’s maximum temperature exceeded 43°C three days in a row, from January 28 to 30, while inland, at Mildura, the maximum temperature rose above 40°C for 12 days in a row. In Tasmania, the all time record was broken two days in a row and nearly half the state had its hottest day on record. Breaking records by wide margins over such large areas has been acknowledged by scientists and politicians as a sign of global warming, caused by the large increase in greenhouse gases from human activities. Ironically, some of the conditions that caused such an inferno in the south brought a deluge of rain and explosion of life to other areas of Australia. The heat in Victoria came partly from heavy rain in Queensland, some of which crossed the Great Dividing Range into the headwaters of the Diamantina and Georgina rivers. After weeks flowing 1000 km south through the Channel Country, water reached Lake Eyre for the first time in five years. This giant salt lake 700 km north of Adelaide covers an area of 6000 sq km and lies 15 m below sea-level. Usually dry, the lake is home to a variety of lizards which feed on ants, which in turn feed on algae growing between the salt crystals. One species of lizard expels excess salt by sneezing it out its nostrils. A flood brings an explosion of life. Shrimp and fish eggs lying dormant under the lake bed hatch, and frogs buried in suspended animation awake and emerge. Nomadic birds such as pelicans, seagulls, cormorants, ibises, egrets and budgies arrive and breed in the thousands. Rapid plant growth in the Channel Country also triggers a boom in the long-haired rat population. After a gestation of only three weeks, females produce litters of five to ten, which, in turn, are ready to breed after only 70 days. The abundance of rats is a boon for predators such as desert pythons and owls, as well as the letter-winged kite, which usually waits for the rats to swarm before breeding. Then the trees become so crowded with nests that the birds sometimes share them. How much water will reach Lake Eyre this time is yet to be seen, though a deep flood is not expected. A four-metre-deep flood occurs about every 10 years, while a full flood happens about four times a century. For that you need something like an ex-tropical cyclone from the northwest meeting a cold front from the southwest, and for that you need the negative phase of the IOD—when that’s coming, nobody knows.
Conservation in New Zealand is mostly about trying to protect native wildlife from the teeth and claws of this plague of our own making.
Venturing away from the coral reefs of the tropics into cooler seas—like those around New Zealand—you enter the realm of kelp. Here meadows of swaying fronds and dense forests of seaweed abound with life.
These days Aucklanders tend to refer to “the bridge” with exasperation, it being the structure that represents all that is wrong with living in a big city in which there are too many cars and not enough roads. It is Auckland’s iconic bottle-neck; when commuters talk about “getting over the bridge”—usually in a tone of great resentment and accompanied by a sigh—they are imagining spending an hour or so of the day inching along, not just over the bridge, but for several kilometres leading up to it. But this is not a structure that should be taken for granted. After all, the idea of linking the North Shore with the rest of the city was first mooted by a group of North Shore farmers back in 1860, but it wasn’t until 1951 that the Auckland Harbour Bridge Authority was established to get the project off the ground, and it took another three years before a loan of £5,002,000 was approved to pay for it. Two men lost their lives during its construction, and several people lost their homes to make way for it. Week-long celebrations marked the completion of the four-lane steel truss cantilever bridge, beginning on May 25, 1959, with a public walk during which 106,500 members of the public streamed across the Waitemata. It was formally opened by Governor-General Lord Cobham on May 30, followed by a fly-by of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, a firefighting display from Harbour Board tugs and fireworks being set off from a barge. Within 24 hours of the 3pm opening, more than 34,000 vehicles had made the trip across the bridge. But, as noted by Renee Lang in Auckland Harbour Bridge: 50 Years a City Icon, it was the “cavalcade of progress” on June 1 that drew what was estimated to be the city’s biggest-ever Auckland crowd, a parade involving veteran cars (including one driven by the oldest licensed driver in the world at the time, Mr W. Reid of Herne Bay), motorcycles, various bands, floats and horse-drawn vehicles. Life on the bridge had already begun as it would carry on: several of the old cars broke down, traffic soon banked up all around the city and cars within the immediate vicinity were reduced to travelling at less than two kilometres per hour.
When Dave Hansford unpacked his bag at Bird Point, Antarctica, he discovered that his partner had hidden a squeaky toy, some chocolate and a hip flask of whisky. At 77 degrees south, surrounded by nothing but ice and penguins, it was quite a find. He needn’t have packed the long lens; a couple of squeaks on the fluffy toy brought Adelie penguins right inside his tent. It was a memorable trip—he recalls lying on the ice surrounded by Adelie penguins and luminescent white snow petrels flying overhead in brilliant sunlight at four in the morning. Such experiences were the reason he had got into this game. Ever since wagging art class to look at issues of National Geographic in the school library at Rangitoto College, Hansford had been obsessed with wildlife. “I can remember being riveted to the television by Jacques Cousteau documentaries,” he recalls. “But as I got older I began to appreciate that this place isn’t a zoo. You need a functioning ecosystem and intact habitats.” He worked for four years in community newspapers, then 11 years at the Dominion newspaper. “But I always had an abiding dissatisfaction with the way the media were reporting on the environment,” he says. “There was very little reported, and it was done poorly.” As there wasn’t a dedicated environmental reporting job at the time, Hansford offered to leave and write environmental news on a freelance basis. That was nine years ago. Now he’s the regional reporter for Oceania for the National Geographic news service, writes for dozens of local magazines and has a monthly slot on TVNZ’s Good Morning show. He’s been fortunate to travel the world with his work but every time Hansford comes home he’s impressed by the unique New Zealand fauna. “I’m constantly amazed by the archaic quality of our wildlife; it’s like walking through a Jurassic forest,” he says. “But, that’s also been its downfall, and now many of our native species are actually very hard to find.” Hansford writes regularly for the GeoNews section at the front of each issue of New Zealand Geographic and spent months researching the feature story on 1080 in this issue. He also wrote the story on butterflies in the first issue this year and the article on native fauna threatened by warming temperatures last September. Over his career he has noticed an encouraging sea-change in the way the media report on the environment. “Ecology stories now touch on tourism, trade and even social equity,” he says. “Environmental issues touch every aspect of our lives, something that most people are now beginning to appreciate.”
Ask your librarian to subscribe to this service next year. Alternatively, use a home network and buy a digital subscription—just $1/week...
Subscribe to our free newsletter for news and prizes