New Zealand’s Serengeti

As we steamed into Bluff on the 2am tide, there was certainly an air of regret to be disembarking our home for the last month, and more pointedly the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic wonderlands that had so captivated us and revealed the value of this ecological paradise. It was with more than a little optimism then that we read next day in the Southland paper of the plans to rabbit-proof fence Oban, the township on Stewart Island, and commence a pest eradication plan that would begin the conversion of the rest of the island into New Zealand’s largest wildlife conservatory – already being referred to by DOC as the “Galapagos of the South”. The potential for substantially higher funding for conservation efforts from such an initiative, was lost on none of us.
For our group, the sub-Antarctic experiences at Campbell, MacQuarie, the Auckland and Snares islands revealed just what a wildlife treasure lies south of this country, a treasure that to date very few people in this country have experienced – they seem to be too busy flying north to get that buzz. Yet here on their doorstep, and in reality a lot better preserved and pristine example than is available nowadays even in Africa, lies a paradise. If only access more ready access for New Zealanders to see that, existed.

 

Imagine if Stewart Island could be added to this trove of natural resource. The sub-Antarctic circuit could easily become one of the world’s most desired destinations for naturalists and educating all who came, just what a contribution to the global environment balance these oceans, wildlife, and flora make. That all twelve deerstalkers who access Stewart Island each year should be upset at the prospect this playground might be denied them, deserves little currency given the mutilation their introduced quarry continues to inflict on the fauna and flora of the island – well out of proportion to the enjoyment New Zealanders could get from the island’s potential.

 

On our circuit it was the Australia’s MacQuarie Island that best illustrated the conflict between conservation and the right of the public to experience the world around them. This island in particular provides its caretakers with a quandary because in essence this is a wildlife wonderland on a par with the Serengeti or the American Rockies. Unlike in Africa the visitor, suitably behaved, is able to get right amongst the wildlife that isn’t disturbed when the appropriate protocols are observed. This makes this wildlife experience pretty well unique.

 

Yet sweet bugger all people get to access it – despite it being on our doorstep. And the bureaucratic tide is running toward further tightening of restrictions on access with some in Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service advocating that it be locked up totally. One wonders what lack of accountability gives these mandarins, paid from the public purse, such latitude to so arrogantly dismiss the public interest. Obviously there’s a trade-off between protecting the natural habitat of the species in residence and the numbers of the public that can enjoy this wonder of the world. But that reality isn’t even considered under existing policy – ironic really when those who have been lucky enough to visit become the strongest advocates of that protection. The selective hypocrisy of officialdom is easily demonstrated for instance when one considers that they haven’t yet even carried out the rabbit eradication that has wreaked havoc over so many the decades. Had some foresight been shown, the resource been opened earlier to paying tourism respectful of its value (and few could fail to be), and permit numbers set at the level commensurate with acceptable disturbance of the fauna and flora, sufficient funding would have been generated years ago for the pest eradication – which by far has been the greater evil than tourism could have been.

 

In the Aucklands the situation is similar, with albatross, molymawks, penguins and sea lions in abundance and the rata forests and its bellbirds a wonderment to behold when in flower as they were for us. But the development of the conservatory seems to be in its infancy with heavy restrictions on permits being preferred to establishing more boardwalks so that more visitors can be accommodated. We had to abandon walking in file so as we didn’t form tracks through the soft peaty soil – the only alternative if boardwalks aren’t provided. Boardwalks we were told, aren’t liked by the purist environmentalist. How self-centred – it reminds me of the hypocrisy of those environmentalists who don’t like wind farms, yet still buy energy-loaded goods and services off the shelf like the rest of us.

 

The rich tourist resource that is the sub-Antarctic islands is one deserved of a rational debate wherein the preservation of the natural habitat remains paramount but not at the cost of it being locked up. Sadly it remains too much the playground of some environmental elite that somehow think being government apparatchiks affords them rights of ownership of such places, while being a denied zone for those of us who wish to enjoy the world around us and don’t happen to be members. Collectively we have an obligation to protect such habitats, and the more people that can visit and become advocates for their guardianship, the better.