Diane Campbell-Hunt with Colin Campbell-Hunt, Ecosanctuaries: Communities Building a Future for New Zealand’s Threatened Ecologies (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013). 292 pp. ISBN 978-1-877578-56-4. NZ$40.00 paperback.

Paul Star1

In the last two centuries, thirteen species of New Zealand’s indigenous birds have officially become extinct, while a further twenty-four species are currently considered ‘endangered’ (that is, having a high or extremely high risk of extinction in the wild).2 Concern about this situation has prompted approaches to bird and habitat protection in New Zealand which are both intense and innovative. In contrast, Britain has at least nine species which appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s wide-ranging ‘red list’,3 but while these nine are threatened they are not endangered species, and only one British bird has become extinct during the period. This was the flightless great auk, the largest member of the auk family, and the bird of the northern oceans whose evolutionary development most nearly mirrored that of the penguins of the southern hemisphere.

The subject of this article is the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous wildlife, but, for an environmental historical approach, telling the great auk’s story is a good way to begin. The decline of the species commenced at a time when the auk was hunted for its down, which made excellent stuffing for pillows. As it approached extinction and as collectors realised how rare it had become, large sums were paid for great auk skins and eggs. A colony of fifty birds was found on Eldey, off the Icelandic coast, in 1835, but these were soon sought out and the last pair killed in 1844. A British specimen was caught and killed on the remote Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda in the same year. The last sighting of a great auk anywhere was possibly that of a single bird off the Newfoundland coast in 1852.4

As a young man Thomas Henry Potts, who inherited a successful London gun-making business and had a strong interest in oology,5 built up one of the finest collections of birds’ eggs in England. While arranging to move to New Zealand with his family in 1854 he sold two of his great auk eggs. He retained the third one, however, and may well have considered it his most treasured possession. In the decade before his death in Christchurch in 1888 his fortunes declined, forcing him to sell almost everything, but he still kept this egg.6

We gain a sense of its importance to Potts from a short paper about the great auk that he read before the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1870.7 In this he remarked that there was ‘no close time or fence month observed for the Great Auk’,8 but hoped nevertheless the species ‘still exists and breeds on some of the surf-beaten Skärs and Skerries [of Iceland], where a frightful surge almost perpetually rages, and denies access to the boldest explorer’. And, he added, ‘would that some of our rarer birds [in New Zealand] could be sheltered from impending extinction by a barrier as secure, and thus be saved from the destructive attacks of the mercenary plunderer’.

Here, quite possibly, is the germ of the idea for island reserves on which to protect endangered species – an idea which became manifest with the gazettal of Resolution Island (550 metres from the mainland) in south-western New Zealand, as a reserve for native birds in 1891. This move gained its full significance with the government’s appointment of a curator for the island, Richard Henry, who tried to ensure a future for kiwi and kakapo – indigenous species which were rapidly losing ground – by translocating them there from the mainland between 1895 and 1898.9 These were actions without precedent anywhere in the world.

An island sanctuary was required since, as long as it was far enough from the mainland, predators such as stoats could not be expected to swim across to it. Brought from Britain to kill rabbits, in the New Zealand context these mustelids made a greater impact killing flightless native birds. Resolution Island appeared to be the ideal haven for such birds, since while large (21,000 hectares) it was remote and inaccessible, covered in bush, uninhabited and (except for mice) predator-free, and already in the government’s possession.

Potts had been the first to note Resolution Island’s potential value. In a letter to Nature in 1872, asking the British to ‘help us save our native birds’, he sought to ‘avert what will some day be a great reproach to this country [New Zealand], the destruction of so many species of our feathered tribe’. He named Resolution Island as one of two which ‘might be placed under tapu from molestation by dog and gun’, where ‘wingless species, and birds of feeble powers of flight, might find … a refuge for some of their representatives’.10

The kiwi and kakapo which Henry transferred to Resolution Island did not survive, since by 1900 mustelids had proved capable of swimming across to them. The notion persisted, however, of offshore islands as protected environments, with Little Barrier Island gazetted as a reserve ‘for the preservation of the native fauna’ in 1895, once it had been wrested from its Maori owners.11 Kapiti Island was the next to be reserved as a bird sanctuary, in 1897. Although acclimatisation societies’ efforts to introduce exotic birds, mammals and fish into New Zealand presented an ongoing record of frequently succesful species translocations, there were no other attempts to move native birds onto offshore islands until the Wildlife Service instigated further island transfers in 1968.12 In the years since then, given the successful concentration of all remaining black robins on Little Mangere Island in the Chathams in the 1970s, and of most kakapo on Whenua Hou off Stewart Island from the 1980s, island reserves, and the breeding programmes carried out on them, have become a key component of the Department of Conservation’s endeavours to ‘save our native birds’.

The emphasis in New Zealand on island reserves was posited on a belief that only the sea could operate successfully as a ‘fence’ to exclude predators from endangered bird species. There is, of course, a parallel history of the creation of national parks and other protected areas on the mainland, to ensure that a large ‘indigenous remnant’ of the ‘natural environment’ remains. Here, extensive trapping, shooting and poisoning programmes are designed primarily to knock back the introduced possum and deer species which respectively devour the young shoots of native tree growth and its understorey.13 Traps and poison are also designed to kill the rats, mustelids and other introduced predators which directly attack native birds, in the hope that remaining populations of the terrestrial fauna can be maintained as well. Where the species is sensitive and highly endangered, however (as in the case of the the kakapo, of which there are currently a mere 125 individuals), close management and monitoring of populations on offshore islands was long seen as the only hope.

Despite this, one century on from the creation of New Zealand’s first island reserve, a new idea evolved – the ‘mainland island’ concept – which has recently stolen some of the limelight from island reserves. It concentrates, similarly, on the indigenous fauna, but this time in a mainland setting, and one of the goals for ‘islands’ of this new kind is to act as transit stations for the reintroduction of threatened species – in the long run even of currently endangered species – to parts of the mainland where they have become locally extinct. The very term, ‘mainland island’, implies that the idea has emerged on the conservation scene as a kind of corollary to the already prominent ‘offshore island’.

Diane Campbell-Hunt’s first book, Developing a Sanctuary (2002), which dealt specifically with New Zealand’s first mainland island, traced its history back to ‘1990 when James [Lynch] was asked to assist the Wellington Branch of the Royal Forest and Bird Society in preparing a strategic plan for conservation in the Wellington area’.14 Two years later, Lynch proposed a nine-kilometre exclusion fence around 250 hectares of well-forested ground (previously the Kaikorai Valley water supply reserve) owned by Wellington City Council. The idea was taken up, and Karori Sanctuary resulted.

Evidently this was a locally inspired initiative. The Wikipedia article on mainland or ‘ecological islands’ notes that ‘the concept … was pioneered in New Zealand and arose mainly from the particular circumstances of that country’s history’.15 As when Resolution Island became an island reserve, this seems to have been a ‘world first’, based on private initiative but sustained by government support – only this time the fence was man-made rather than natural. Maybe rabbit proof fences, constructed by Australian and New Zealand runholders in the late nineteenth century to halt this exotic pest’s advance into sheep country, could be seen as some sort of precedent. New Zealand never had anything to compare with the 700 mile fence which, by 1893, extended outward from Dubbo in New South Wales,16 but at much the same time a 46 mile rabbit proof fence was built in South Canterbury, and others elsewhere, to equally little avail.

The recently published Ecosanctuaries: Communities Building a Future for New Zealand’s Threatened Ecologies (2013), written by Diane and Colin Campbell-Hunt, contains nothing about the origins of fenced mainland islands (that is, ‘ecosanctuaries’), nor about island reserves. This is not their concern. The above paragraphs, however, may suggest how the environmental historical approach throws up information, perspectives, and hopefully insights, which could supplement those presented by an ecologist such as Diane Campbell-Hunt (who died in 2008) or an expert in business studies such as her husband Colin.

While I have approached mainland islands by looking to the past, the Campbell-Hunts, by regarding the present state of these ‘ecosanctuaries’, seek to find the key to their survival into the future. ‘The objective of this study’, we are told, ‘is to identify the conditions under which community-based biodiversity sanctuaries might be sustainable’ (p. 58).

Interviews with people involved in these sanctuaries, which Diane undertook in 2006-2008, are quoted throughout this book. These all either exemplify the opinions of those involved in sanctuaries or detail incidents that occurred in the course of their sanctuaries’ creation and management. Remarks are classified insofar as they indicate the need to ensure a sustainable ecology within the fence, to sustain community support for the sanctuary, to make it into a sustainable economic enterprise, and to achieve a sustainable relationship with government. The conclusion reached is that you need the lot, for, ‘if sanctuaries are to realise their initial vision, they will have to remain committed to all four sustainability objectives: protect a self-sustaining ecology and earn sufficient income to cover costs and retain the strong support of the local community and maintain their autonomy in relationships of partnership with government agencies’ (p. 256).

Unfortunately it is not the current situation that is described and reflected upon. Five of the six fenced sanctuaries used as case studies more than doubled their lifespans between when most information-gathering ended and when analysis of the data was published (five years later, in 2013).17 Little attempt is made to include actual later developments in the book’s discussion of how sanctuaries might best stand the test of time. Where recent events are mentioned – notably the failure of Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (now Zealandia) to meet expectations of greater financial self-sufficiency, and the breakdown of solidarity among stakeholders at Maungatautari Ecological Island – few details are given, and then only in endnotes. One can understand Colin Campbell-Hunt’s inability to properly update his wife’s research after her death – but it means that this book, although still valuable, does not quite have the relevance or feel of immediacy that any discussion of ecosanctuaries deserves.

Elsewhere, however, Colin has contributed directly to ongoing debate about the relative value of island reserves and mainland islands.18 Paul Scofield and others, in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology in 2011, asked, ‘are predator-proof fences the answer to New Zealand’s terrestrial faunal biodiversity crisis?’, maintaining that sanctuaries created in this way were often ‘little more than … expensive zoos surrounded by degraded habitat that will never be able to sustain the animal and plant species contained within’. They felt that ‘islands suitably far from shore are better than fences at (1) restricting ongoing need for expenditure on fencing, maintenance and monitoring, (2) eliminating the probability of predator reinvasion, and (3) providing a low-cost long-lasting conservation benefit’. Consequently, they recommended a continuing emphasis on the ‘island ark’ approach.19

In response, in the same journal in the following year, John Innes et al (including Colin Campbell-Hunt) argued that offshore islands had ‘different environmental conditions from those found on the mainland and both need consideration to achieve representative reserve networks’. There was, they pointed out, limited availability of suitable offshore islands for reserves. Furthermore, only mainland restoration could effectively utilise community support, and only mainland islands were directly surrounded by landscapes in which endangered species might eventually re-establish.20 Both parties have since agreed that, even given the need for swift response to ecological crisis and the constraints imposed by financial crisis, more analysis and comparison of results is required, and that ‘no single approach will ever be adequate by itself’.21

With island reserves and mainland reserves, then, it is not a question of ‘either/or’. Currently, both are playing a part in the attempt to retain or restock New Zealand’s indigenous biota, as are habitat restoration and pest control, and as may genetic manipulation. For many indigenous species, if they are to survive or spread beyond the narrow confines of small reserves, there is a need not only for large ‘national parks’ but also for suitable micro-environments well outside the DOC estate and for participation from the wider public. And it is not just the future of terrestrial biota that needs to be addressed, given that we live at a time when riverine and marine ecosystems are also under threat. The increased pace and heightened awareness of climate change (whether anthropogenic or not) highlights the interconnectedness of all environmental histories.

Maybe some day New Zealand will again have flourishing populations of currently endangered native birds and other fauna ‘out in the open’, in line with the late Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of a predator-free country.22 At present, though, this vision feels like a pipe dream. The Department of Conservation seems confident that new or refined methods of predator control will at least maintain (and perhaps expand) populations of some indigenous fauna beyond the contained environments of offshore and mainland islands. Currently, sodium fluoroacetate (1080) is applied in the absence of any other effective or economically feasible way to significantly reduce predator impact over large areas of remote mainland. Some, however, claim that this poison, which kills both rats and possums (and can reduce stoat numbers through secondary poisoning), also has a permanently damaging effect on the numbers of native birds. In response to DOC stepping up its poisoning programme in 2014, one correspondent provocatively suggested that ‘the only way to settle the issue over bird deaths would be to arial poison one of the predator-proof sanctuaries with 1080-laced carrots and cereal-based baits, then get independent monitors to carry out a grid search post-poisoning’.23

Richard Henry’s translocations of the 1890s suggested both the possibility and the parameters of any ‘sanctuary’ approach. Experiments conducted on Resolution Island since 2008, over a century after Henry focussed on that insufficiently remote landmass, confirm how far off the coast an effective island reserve must be, and how very difficult it remains to keep any other unfenced area predator free.24 On the other hand, Henry’s actions have been a source of inspiration for several successful translocations in recent years,25 and increasing community efforts to protect mainland native bird habitats have produced some encouraging results, by no means all within fenced sanctuaries.26

Mainland islands, and Diane and Colin Campbell-Hunt’s analysis of them, must be placed within this wider context of conservation efforts in New Zealand. The common factors behind all such endeavours are hard work and strong hope. The Campbell-Hunts’ study is valuable because it provides reasoned and evidence-based conclusions, at least with regard to ‘ecosanctuaries’, about where work and hope might be most rewardingly directed. Feasibility, after all, is the crucial component as we as a country attempt to switch from ‘future-eating’ to ‘future-saving’.


[1] Paul Star is a research associate of the history programme, Waikato University, Hamilton.

[2] Based on “New Zealand Species Listed in 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species”, at http://terranature.org/IUCNredList.htm. Colin Miskelly et al, “Conservation Status of New Zealand Birds, 2008”, Notornis 55 (2008): 117-135, employing different terminology and including subspecies, list 20 extinct New Zealand taxa post-1800 and 77 threatened (critical, endangered or vulnerable). Hugh A. Robertson et al, Conservation Status of New Zealand Birds, 2012 (Wellington: Department of Conservation, 2013) list 19 extinct taxa.

[3] Two of these nine species, the skylark and song thrush, are now common in New Zealand, where they were introduced from Britain in the nineteenth century.

[4] See Jeremy Gaskell, Who Killed the Great Auk? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 139-150, for discussion of the bird’s ‘last appearances’, and 165-187 for links between the great auk’s decline and the passage of the British Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds of 1869.

[5] Oology is the study or collection of birds’ eggs. Potts later wrote a six-part “Oology of New Zealand”, published in the New Zealand Journal of Science 2 (1884-85).

[6] His widow sold the egg in 1891, and it was sold on again in 1897 for £294. For a history of this particular egg, see John E. Thayer, “Great Auk Eggs in the Thayer Museum”, The Auk 29.2 (1912): 208-209.

[7] T.H. Potts, “Notes on an Egg of Alca impennis, Linn., in the Collection of the Author”, Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 3 (1871): 109-110.

[8] A ‘fence month’ first referred to the fawning time of the deer, a thirty-day period when hunting them was forbidden. The term harked back to a now obsolete meaning of ‘fence’, given in the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘means or method of defence, protection, security’.

[9] Susanne and Richard Hill, Richard Henry of Resolution Island (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1987), 177, 233.

[10] T.H. Potts, “Help us Save our Native Birds”, letter to the editor, in Nature, May 2, 1872: 5-6. The letter’s mention of the kittiwake, protected in Britain since the 1869 Sea Birds Preservation Act, shows Potts was well aware of protection measures outside New Zealand. His use of the word ‘tapu’ suggests he may also have been influenced by Maori concepts of resource conservation such as rahui.

[11] Ross Galbreath, Walter Buller: The Reluctant Conservationist (Wellington: GP Books, 1989), 186-192, 211-213.

[12] Ross Galbreath, Working for Wildlife: A History of the New Zealand Wildlife Service (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1993), 175-207.

[13] Possums also eat the eggs of native birds, and their control is also supported because, as carriers of bovine tuberculosis, they threaten the country’s dairy, beef and deer-farming industries.

[14] Diane Campbell-Hunt, Developing a Sanctuary: The Karori Experience (Wellington: Victoria Link, 2002), 13.

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/Ecological_island accessed March 31, 2014.

[16] Eric C. Rolls, They All Ran Wild: The Story of Pests on the Land in Australia (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1969), 119-124.

[17] The six case studies are of Maungatautauri Ecological Island, Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Bushy Park Homestead, Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (Zealandia), Rotokare Scenic Reserve, and Tawharanui Open Sanctuary. A broad overview is also provided in Dave Butler, Tony Lindsay and Janet Hunt, Paradise Saved: The Remarkable Story of New Zealand’s Wildlife Sanctuaries and How They are Stemming the Tide of Extinction (Auckland: Random House, 2014).

[18] Recently he also actively campaigned against oil and gas exploration off the New Zealand coast. See “Is the ‘Aberdeen of the South’ an Idea Past its Time?’ and “Deep Sea Drilling: A Local Perspective” at http:// oilfreeotago.com/tag/colin-campbell-hunt/.

[19] R. Paul Scofield, Ross Cullen and M. Wang, “Are Predator-proof Fences the Answer to New Zealand’s Terrestrial Faunal Biodiversity Crisis?”, New Zealand Journal of Ecology 35 (2011): 312-317.

[20] John Innes, William G. Lee, Bruce Burns, Colin Campbell-Hunt, Corinne Watts, Hilary Phipps and Theo Stephens, “Role of Predator-proof Fences in Restoring New Zealand’s Biodiversity: A Response to Scofield et al (2011)”, New Zealand Journal of Ecology 36 (2012): 232-238.

[21] R. Paul Scofield and Ross Cullen, “Fenced Sanctuaries Need Critical Evaluation: A Reply to Innes et al (2012)”, New Zealand Journal of Ecology 36 (2012): 239-242.

[22] Sir Paul Callaghan, “The Zealandia Vision for a Predator-free New Zealand”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noIP5lbuJHk accessed March 25, 2014.

[23] Lewis Hore, letter to the editor, Otago Daily Times February 20, 2014. Carrots are no longer used as bait by DOC. The recorded effects of 1080 on non-target species are summarised in A.A.C. Fairweather, K.G. Broome and P. Fisher, “Sodium Fluoroacetate Pesticide Information Review, Version 2014/1”, Unpublished report docdm-25427 (Hamilton: Department of Conservation, 2014).

[24] ‘Stoats continue to persist on the island despite more than 2500 traps having been checked and reset three times a year … 556 stoats have been captured in 18 trapping sessions between July 2008 and July 2013 … The mean annual immigration rate was estimated to be … approximately 7 stoats every 10 years … If the trapping programme was stopped, the stoat population would rebound to its starting population size within 2–3 years.’ Dean Anderson, Andrea Byrom, Peter McMurtrie and Kerri-Anne Edge, “Eradication or Control to Zero Density on Near-shore Islands?: Lessons from a Stoat-removal Operation on Resolution Island, Fiordland”, Kararehe Kino 23 (February 2014): 5-7.

[25] See Marty Taylor, “Resolution for Richard Henry”, New Zealand Geographic 83 (2007): 78-88.

[26] See, for instance, Lyndsay Blue and Greg Blunden, “(Re)making Space for Kiwi: Beyond ‘Fortress Conservation’ in Northland”, New Zealand Geographer 66 (2010): 105–123.