Saturday, 28 October 2017

Counting keruru: can public surveys and competitions aid New Zealand conservation?

Whilst some other countries - the UK, for example - have dozens of general and specialised wildlife surveys undertaken by members of the public, New Zealand has comparatively few. Whilst this might seem odd, considering the Kiwi penchant for the great outdoors (not to mention the little matter of the endangered status of so many native species) it should be remembered that the nation has a rather small (human) population. In addition, New Zealand is no different from other developed countries, wherein environmentalists often appear at loggerheads with rural landowners, especially farmers.

Since agriculture forms a fundamental component of the New Zealand economy, any anti-farming sentiment can quickly escalate into unpleasantness, as even a cursory look at agriculture versus environmentalists news stories will confirm. Farmers are often reported as resenting what they deem as unrealistic or uninformed opinions by wildlife campaigners. But lest farmers consider this particular post being yet another piece of anti-farming propaganda, it should be noted that campaigns are usually driven by a perceived need for action in the face of government inactivity: after all, New Zealand is second only to Hawaii in the number of introduced species, many of which are in direct competition with, or predate upon, native ones.

Talking of competitions, this year's Bird of the Year contest has just been won by the cheeky, intelligent kea, the world's only alpine parrot. Run by Forest and Bird* and now in its thirteenth year, it aims to raise publicity for the plight of New Zealand's native birds and the wider environment they rely upon. With over 50,000 votes cast, this means approximately 1% of New Zealand citizens and residents entered the competition (assuming of course that non-Kiwis didn't participate).

The international level of awareness about the competition seems to be on the increase too, with the kea's victory even being reported on the website of the UK's The Guardian newspaper, albeit in an article written by a New Zealand-based journalist. The competition doesn't appear to offer anything to science, except a potential – if not unobvious - theory that the public's fondness for particular wildlife species is based upon their aesthetic qualities, with drab birds for example getting less attention than colourful ones. Then again, perhaps Forest and Bird are more interested in spreading their message rather than the results; as the old adage goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed, the story of a Christchurch-based who tried to rig the vote in favour of the white-faced heron was reported by the BBC.

Another prominent example of the New Zealand's public involvement in environmental matters is the Annual Garden Bird survey, which began in 2007 and is run by the Government-owned Landcare Research. This more obvious example of citizen science states that the results are used to analyse population trends for both native and introduced bird species and so aid pest control programmes. However, it would be difficult to ascertain the validity of the observations, since less than 0.3% of the nation's gardens (or rather their owners) participate.

Whilst 5000 entries might be considerably more than could be achieved by other means, there are probably all sorts of details that are missed with this level of coverage. I have participated for three years now and have found that my observations do not agree with the reported trends. For example, last year's results show that the silvereye, blackbird and song thrush have declined in my area, whereas I have not noticed any such a drop-off for these birds -  and it's not as if I particularly encourage the latter two (non-native) species.

A more specific example of bio-recording was last month's Great Kereru Count, which claims to be New Zealand's biggest citizen science project. Clearly, they don't consider the Bird of the Year competition as science! Various organisations run this survey, which gained around 7000 reports this year. There are also continuous monitoring schemes, such as for monarch butterflies (which is interesting, as this is a far-from-endangered, recently self-introduced creature) whilst NatureWatch NZ allows anyone to supply a record of a plant or animal species, or indeed to request identification of one. The latter might not sound particularly necessary, but judging by how little some New Zealanders seem to know about their own environment (for example I've met Kiwis who cannot identify such common organisms as a tree weta or cabbage trees) this resource is probably essential in understanding the spread of non-native species.

With native species protection in mind, there are other, more direct, citizen science projects in the country, with everything from the Great Kiwi Morning Tea fundraiser this month to allocation of funding for predator control tools and traps – including in urban gardens - via the independent trust Predator Free New Zealand.

For an even greater level of public involvement in science and technological research, in 2015 the New Zealand Government initiated the Participatory Science Platform to aid partnerships between professionals and community groups. Three pilot projects are currently under way, with Dr Victoria Metcalf as the National Coordinator (or Queen of Curiosity as she has been nicknamed.) These projects are exciting because they involve the public from project development through to conclusion, rather than just using non-scientists as data gatherers. In addition, the ability to gain first-hand experience on real-world undertakings may even encourage children from lower decile areas to consider STEM careers. That's no bad thing.

Back to surveys. Although science communication (sci-comm) is in vogue, my own feeling is that participation is key to promoting science – the methods as well as the facts – to the wider public. Yes, some science is very difficult to understand, but there's plenty that is also easy to grasp. This includes the dangers facing species pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, pollution, and introduced organisms. By actively involving entire communities, surveys and competitions can also play a part in preserving species whilst allowing a sustainable level of development.

Of course this requires a government with vision, but with New Zealand's Green Party gaining positions in the Jacinda Ardern-led coalition, perhaps the newly-formed New Zealand Government will pick up the slack after years of prevarication and inactivity. That way our grandchildren will be able to experience the cheeky kea and company for real, rather than just via old recordings. How can that fail to make sense? After all, at the lower end of the bio-recording spectrum, all it requires is for someone to make a few taps on their keyboard or smartphone. It's certainly not rocket science!

*Forest and Bird have actively lobbied the New Zealand Government in numerous cases to prevent environmental degradation via land swaps, mining and hydro-electric schemes. They have produced a volume on environmental law and a mobile app called the Best Fish Guide. All in all, they perform an immensely valuable contribution to ensure that development in New Zealand is sustainable and that the public are made aware of schemes that might impact the wider environment.