By Alison Ballance
“The endangered species problem here is huge. New Zealand is the ‘extinction capital’ of the world, along with some other island systems. We have thousands of endangered species, and we really can only work on a handful with the intensity that’s needed.”
Phil Seddon, zoologist, University of Otago
“There are a whole range of things – particularly smaller, harder to see things – that are just as endangered as cute things like kiwi and kakapo. They also need conservation work, and they have the added bonus that they’re cheaper to save than the big spectacular species.”
Mike Thorsen, founder, Endangered Species Foundation
The world’s rarest dolphin, a weevil that was thought to be extinct, a plant that now cannot survive in the wild, and a primitive seaweed the size of an eyelash are just some of the highly threatened species that the New Zealand Endangered Species Foundation is hoping to save.
Several decades ago, when Mike Thorsen embarked on his conservation career, his father remarked that it wouldn’t be hard to raise a million dollars for conservation. The idea remained in the back of Mike’s mind until recently, when he decided to take that idea and put it to practical use, although as he remarks, a little ironically, that today it needs more than a million dollars to establish a useful philanthropic conservation fund.
Several years ago Mike decided to do something practical for conservation, and what he had in mind was identifying the neediest – but often overlooked - species among the nearly 4000 species that are threatened.
The Endangered Species Foundation was officially launched in Wellington this week. It already has well over a million dollars in its trust fund, and is aiming for $35 million,
The goal of the Trust is “protecting New Zealand’s rarest of the rare,” by giving out grants for what they call ‘results oriented’ conservation projects.
Phil says there is a big taxonomic bias in current conservation work. “What we choose to work on is just a tiny subset of what we should work on, and often they’re not even the most endangered or at risk.”
The Foundation have drawn up a Top Ten Most Endangered List that will be their initial focus; they have also got a list of a further 50 species of very high concern.
The Top Ten Most Endangered
Māui dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui)
Māui dolphins are one of the world’s smallest and most rare dolphins. An endemic sub-species closely related to the Hector’s dolphin, they are now found only in the shallow coastal waters off the west coast of the North Island. Investigating additional conservation opportunities.
Mokohinau stag beetle (Geodorcus ithaginis)
The Mokohinau stag beetle is one of New Zealand’s few remaining large (25-32mm long) beetles. Known only from the Mokohinau Islands east of Auckland, it owes its name to the large antler-like mandibles on the head of male beetles, which they are thought to use when fighting for mates. Investigating captive breeding and translocation.
Canterbury knobbled weevil (Hadramphus tuberculatus)
Thought extinct since 1924, the Canterbury knobbled weevil was rediscovered in 2004 inhabiting golden speargrass plants in Burkes Pass. Whilst the spiky speargrass leaves are thought to provide some protection for this large weevil from introduced predators, the total population probably numbers less than 100 adults. Predator trapping and possible captive breeding.
Isoetes aff. kirkii (CHR 247118A; Lake Omapere)
The quillwort (an aquatic primitive fern) Isoetes aff. kirkii (CHR 247118A; Lake Omapere) was historically found in several Northland lakes, but it is now considered extinct in the wild after it disappeared from its last known home at Lake Omapere following a dramatic decline in water quality. Luckily, searches had uncovered a few plants, and now 12 plants are carefully tended in a Landcare Research aquarium.
New Zealand fairy tern (Sternula nereis davisae)
The delicate NZ fairy tern is the most endangered of New Zealand’s endemic birds, with only about a dozen pairs surviving on beaches between Whangarei and Auckland. Helping with current protection measures.
Limestone cress (Pachycladon exilis)
Limestone cress has apparently always been a rare plant, only inhabiting limestone outcrops in the South Island’s Waitaki Valley. Now it is found on just one limestone outcrop at Awahokomo, where about 50 plants are known. Control weeds, fencing and possible seed spreading to new sites.
Chesterfield skink (Oligosoma aff. Infrapunctatum)
Research over the past two decades has discovered many new species of lizard in New Zealand. The Chesterfield skink was discovered in the late 1990’s at only one location, near Chesterfield between Hokitika and Greymouth on the West Coast, and only one animal has been seen in the last 5 years.
Coastal peppercress (Lepidium banksii)
Short-lived coastal peppercress has only ever been found around the Nelson coastline from the Marlborough Sounds to Karamea. Despite much conservation effort, this species has proved nearly impossible to conserve in the wild, and is now classified as “Extinct in the Wild”. All surviving plants are now grown hydroponically and require constant care.
Eyelash seaweed (Dione arcuate)
Eyelash seaweed is very unusual: it is a tiny seaweed the size and shape of a human eyelash, it is very similar to some of the oldest known fossils of multicellular organisms, and it is known from only two boulders, each at separate sites on the Kaikoura coast. Here the number of plants fluctuates for unknown reasons.
Pimelea actea is a small shrub relative of daphne that used to inhabit moist sand flats on the Manawatu and Wanganui coast, and near Christchurch. Recently it has disappeared from nearly all known sites. The only plants known are descended from a few plants collected from one site in 1991, but it is possible that a few plants survive on private land. Weeding, fencing and predator control.