Conservation Conversations #1: Lou Sanson, Department of Conservation
It’s Conservation Week in New Zealand, and over the coming days we’ll be bringing you several conversations with people at the forefront of the protecting, restoring and conserving New Zealand’s natural ecosystems and biodiversity.
Earlier this year at New Frontiers Festival, I chatted with Lou Sanson about how climate change is affecting conservation efforts in New Zealand. Lou is the Director General of the Department of Conservation, and as such is the ultimate custodian of roughly one third of New Zealand’s landmass which is designated with some level of conservation protection.
Lou do you want to tell us first a little bit about what the Department of Conservation does?
Well we look after a third of New Zealand. NZ prides itself on putting aside a third of the country for nature. The biggest issues for NZ are pests and climate change and really, it’s about killing things for conservation.
Why is it that pest control is so important for New Zealand?
NZ is a country of birds. We were the last discovered, the loneliest, the loveliest — the land bridges got broken millions of years ago, and birds occupy the upper niche of our whole ecosystem.
But the last 150 years we brought in all these pests: possums, mustelids, rats, stoats that are doing so much damage. And climate change just gives them all an edge. We have warmer winters, and we’ve got our wilding pine problem. So we’re really facing two battles: One of introduced pests, and one of these guys getting an edge through warmer climate.
So we’re actually seeing the problem exacerbated at the moment with the climate problems, at the same time as we’re trying to tackle these challenges with pest control?
Yes, exactly. We’re seeing things like the Norwegian rat, that used to be in the bush, now out in the tussock lands predating on some of our birds that live on braided rivers. We’re seeing wilding pines — pines that were once suppressed by our cold winters — now starting to expand across our landscapes.
How does the work that the Department is doing impact on everyday Kiwis, and the experiences that they have in nature?
What we’re creating here is really a movement, a call to arms — this is a battle. This is about NZ; this is about our national identity. Nature is such a big part of what we are as a country. It’s on our money, it’s on our passports, we wake up every morning to a bird call on Radio New Zealand. People love these birds; they want to save them. We’ve done so much damage, and we’ve got to turn it round. So this is about a vision of a predator-free NZ, it’s about reclaiming our nature and keeping these pests at bay.
Are there things that people can specifically do in their area to get involved in this type of work?
All over the country we’ve got groups. Every weekend we’ve got something like 15,000 people out there running stoat lines, possum lines, taking out wilding pines — it’s really how we can help them and their interests. We’ve got farmers putting in Good Nature self-repeating traps in their patch of bush to bring back the the bellbird, to bring back tui, to bring back kiwi. In every community, there are people doing this and we are so proud of it — virtually every community in NZ has a group doing something in this space.
That’s fantastic to hear. Any particular favourite spots of your own to get outdoors in NZ?
I’m from the West Coast of the South Island, a place called Hokitika, I just passionately love that place. I love those big wide open landscapes in the MacKenzie Country and central Otago. But central North Island has some real magic too. Those sacred mountains of Tongariro and Ruapehu, those magical rivers around there, some of the cycle ways we’re building… There’s special places everywhere in the country.
Helping out with conservation efforts is a great way to get kids out about in nature and teach them about how natural ecosystems work. If you’d like to get involved in conservation activities, check out the opportunities in your region.