While much of the marine life found in New Zealand is unique to its islands, the most distinguishing life forms of the country are found on land. This is what a modest wildlife sanctuary in Wellington wants to show visitors. The 200+ hectare valley called Zealandia was fenced off in 1999, all plants and animals not present in New Zealand before people arrived removed, and native species re-introduced. The intention is to recreate a mammal-free environment. Although the 500-year project is still in its early years, what has become of the landscape is amazing.
At Zealandia, birds rule, as anyone who reads a bit on New Zealand natural history will learn was the case on every piece of land before it was colonized by people just 800 years ago. Tui’s and kaka's, both endemic and gregarious birds, dominate the airwaves with their pleasant calls. Second only to the birds are the sounds of insects, whose sizes allude to the mammalian niche they evolved to fill in the forest here.
In the forested areas on the North Island I’ve explored so far, around Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, the Hunua Ranges outside of Auckland, and here at Zealandia, what has been most striking to me is the sound. I say sound singularly because although there are parts, be it the whirling flight and melodic song of a tui, the ringing of thousands of cicadas, or the rich flow of water … they all come together as one symphony of forest music that sounds like no other I’ve heard in my travels.
Lost in this sound amidst lush vegetation on my walk through Zealandia, I was filled with curiosity that made me want to push deeper into it until it swallowed me and became my Neverland. But I was abruptly pulled from my trance when another person on the tour commented that he didn’t understand why they were trying to put it back to what it was 800 years ago.
It made me realize that not everyone is sees value in the strange sturdy beak of the flightless takahe or the mysterious third eye of the tuatara, the only living representative of a group of reptiles that survived the dinosaur era. So, how to answer other than to say it would be a tragedy to lose it all?
Biodiversity. Or, as we simplified the term in my graduate program at SOU, the variety of living things. One way to teach the importance of biodiversity to an ecosystem is to liken it to a balanced human diet. The food pyramid consists of variety. Less variety in your diet makes you more vulnerable to illnesses, and all over less healthy. Without the immense variety of birds and plants that have taken millennia to reach a balance here, the ecosystem is less healthy and more vulnerable to acute natural disasters. The plants and animals (including people) that call New Zealand home rely on a healthy ecosystem to provide resources, regulate the climate, and so many other services that cannot be engineered. The introduction of non-native species is a chronic natural disaster that has compromised the biodiversity here in New Zealand, and so the balance among its ecosystems that ensures its health.
At Zealandia, as well as at the increasing number of other conservation reserves established throughout New Zealand, the purpose is not about going back. It’s about taking what we have now, what is left, and moving forward with the understanding that biodiversity is a fundamental part of a healthy planet Earth. Diversity takes time to establish, and when being acted upon by natural selection would take time to lose. But can be lost so quickly when acted upon by unnatural forces. This seems to be well understood here, and collaborative action has been taken to prevent that from happening completely, which is an inspiring thing to experience as a visitor.