What a moa wants

As the dust has settled on another New Zealand election and policy promises turn into policy implementation, it seemed worthwhile to reflect on what a fully restored ecosystem would look like in 21st century Aotearoa/NZ and how this might happen.  What you might find surprising is how many of the proposals would actually have real merit if applied the right way.  Let’s start with the matter of what I mean by a “fully restored ecosystem”.  

By far the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that the New Zealand archipelago had a fully functioning and healthy ecosystem, until around 700 years ago when the first humans set up camp.  Almost all of the land was fully forested including the dry Eastern areas such as Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Canterbury.  Our Polynesian forebears did what humans do – they hunted and modified the landscape with fire. Much like our European ancestors later, these first settlers undoubtedly had no grasp on the magnitude of the change they were initiating.  Such was the scale of the fires that when historic records began in the early 19th century, many of the once forested areas were so distant from seed sources that they simply grew tussock grass and the forests never recovered.  So, what about the ecosystem in the wet areas?  Evidence suggests that many of these too were burned at various points but experienced far less devastating fires.  Nonetheless, the ecosystem was subjected to new predation by rats, dogs and humans.  

But here’s the rub.  A large proportion of the pre-European extinctions were from these Eastern areas where only tiny pockets of dryland forest still remain and many of the affected bird species were large and required large ranges.  

What is immediately obvious when you step into a remnant dryland forest is how dramatically different it is from the bush that most of us are familiar with.  There is a plethora of endangered plants, many twiggy and divaricating, that are absent elsewhere. Many of these plants have presented a challenge to restoration efforts, being slow to recolonise surrounding land.  Exactly what role moa and other extinct species played in this ecosystem is really anyone’s guess but undoubtedly it will have been profound.  

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In pre-human times, Molesworth Station was forested and supported several species of moa.

To create a picture, imagine an expanse of land like inland Marlborough or Canterbury with relatively open, tall forest of totara, matai, kanuka and hoheria.  Without high rainfall, the understory would be made up of dense twiggy shrubs such as have been found in moa crop remains.  Growth rates would have been very slow so when a large tree died, the open area would have persisted for a relatively long time.  Large birds like moa could therefore move easily through forests like this and so too a predator like Haast’s eagle.  

Genetic Rescue Foundation has been a big proponent of restoring Aotearoa/NZ’s pre-human ecosystem with the best that science has to offer.  Along with many other dedicated conservation groups, we recognise that an ecosystem is just that and that the removal of any component part can have devastating effect long term on the entire system.  The challenge with a completely devastated ecosystem is – where do you start?  In my opinion we must start with an idea of where we want to end up.  That calls for something of a “master plan” and unity between the many conservation groups.  We also have to be pragmatic about where we fit into the picture allowing for economic activity, farming etc.  This election, all major parties have expressed a desire to invest in science, a goal of making NZ predator free, planting trees and improving the lot of our endemic species.  As it would happen, all of these points are critical to a long term vision that includes restoration of our extinct species.  

Assuming adequate investment in our research programmes, the international de-extinction community is likely to begin delivering the first revived species within a decade.  Of course, the more rigorous our efforts, the longer this will take.  If this is to ever move beyond small birds suitable for island refuges, this must involve predator eradication on mainland New Zealand as proposed by Predator Free NZ.   Furthermore, we must begin large scale restoration of our Eastern dryland forests.  Large expanses of degraded land such as Molesworth Station would seem natural targets for any such effort.  Yet, another non-profit, Tane’s Tree Trust, has developed significant resources to support indigenous plantation forestry.  Perhaps the billion tree target by the new government could be made up from 100% indigenous species.  Lastly, a restored ecosystem requires us to invest in science and conservation.  There is an opportunity for New Zealand to become the world leader in avian conservation biotechnology, working on contracts from across the world.  And, we can’t be reviving one species while we let another slip into extinction.  Restoration efforts such as the Kakapo and Kiwi Recovery Programmes need adequate resourcing.  We can’t have critical research to support these efforts determined by lottery from an undersized funding pool.

Ultimately, moa need to be part of a restored ecosystem which isn’t missing other species.  So, speaking on behalf of all moa past and future, it’s time to work together on a shared goal for a restored Aotearoa/NZ and the sooner we get to it the better.

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