The Importance of Biodiversity

By Sylvie McLean

Our role in enhancing biodiversity outside of “protected areas.”

In any discussion of environmental issues it is important to step back and look at the bigger picture, to consider what values you hold and what your priorities are, and make robust, considered discussions. What does biodiversity mean to you? Is it national parks and the wilderness within them? Or is it your back garden, the trees that line the streets or the plants you have in your bedroom? Is it the stream that runs through your local park or the ocean of the harbour? What is it that you value and connect with? What makes you cherish the places you are in?

Enhancing indigenous biodiversity (native plants, animals and ecosystems) is not confined to the protected areas of our conservation estate, run by the Department of Conservation and local councils; it is the life all around us. We are part of biodiversity and we play a massive role in the life that we co-exist with.

The small choices we make about the plants we have in our houses and in our gardens, the litter we put into stream and ocean ecosystems, and the emissions we produce in our everyday lives alter the conditions that we and all the life around us requires to survive and thrive. These are our opportunities to make change, the actions we make and the actions we demand of decision makers can significantly improve the state of indigenous biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Small steps like owning native plants in our homes and gardens that attract native insects and birds makes a substantial impact, as it creates corridors for these species to move through cities. The increase in birdlife will enable an increase in the spread of seeds by them to further increase the distribution and concentration of native plants in the city, which will in turn attract more birds.

Other actions include ensuring our rubbish stays in rubbish bins, or even better is reduced, so that it does not end up in stream or ocean ecosystems where it smothers fish and plant species. It is important to remember that anything that goes onto the street goes into the stormwater system, the network of pipes under our feet that flows directly into streams or the ocean with no treatment or filtering. For example, if coffee is poured down a stormwater drain, then the fish in the harbour will get a caffeine hit. Hence, individual and community actions must be taken because our presence in an area is intertwined with its ecology. The drive to coexist with nature is vital, especially given that protected areas are not quite as effective as they’re often portrayed.

Aotearoa New Zealand “protects” 34% of our landmass and 31% of our marine areas, putting us well up in the global standings, but this is not the entire picture. There are two main reasons our conservation estate is not quite as spectacular as optimists speculate. Firstly, the conservation estate is made up of 22 different types of protected areas with a range of levels of protection. Lumping all protected areas together suggests that they each receive the same level of protection, but this is not the case. Somewhere like Zealandia, in Kaori Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, receives targeted pest control action whereas the Kaiwharawhara Stream Conservation Area is categoriesed as a stewardship area.

Stewardship Areas make up nearly a third of the terrestrial protected areas, and 10% of the landmass of the country, but these areas receive no active protection.

They were areas set aside with the intention of later being allocated for different landuses but this has not transpired, and to date remain unprotected and unallocated. The Kaiwharawhara Stream Conservation Area consists of the lower reaches of the stream which have been highly modified in a concrete channel and polluted by the motorway and rail line that it exists under. The area receives no protection or attempted restoration. Taking these differences into account means that we can and should scrutinize claims made about protected areas in Aotearoa New Zealand, as it highlights the fact that protected areas cannot be solely relied upon to protect indigenous biodiversity.

Unfortunately, the efficacy of our marine protected areas is worse than that of our terrestrial protected areas. There are only four types of marine protected areas and the level of protection within them is comparatively low. Benthic Protected Areas cover 28% of country’s marine area and the vast majority of protected marine areas, but receive the least protection. They are simply areas where ground trawling is prohibited, but all other fishing and marine activities are allowed.

Ground trawling is a very destructive fishing practice, however these areas tend to be among the least accessible of marine areas, and exist on the outer reaches or deep trenches, where ground trawling is not feasible. Thus these areas are deemed “protected” because they cannot be trawled in, regardless. In fact, it appears that protected areas in Aotearoa New Zealand are often located in places that do not interfere with human activity, as opposed to regions that possess specific ecological value. Furthermore, having protected areas within these residual areas means that they are not large enough to have significant ecological value, as they do not encompass entire ecosystems. Hence we say that they are ‘fragmented’ because organisms cannot move between them easily and reduce their value as habitats.

Secondly, the resulting protected area sites (chosen as places that did not interfere with economic activities, rather than for specific ecological value) do not cover the wide range of significant habitats that exist within Aotearoa New Zealand. Terrestrial protected areas are primarily in cold, wet alpine areas that are not appropriate for farming or urban areas. Coastal areas, wetlands, and plains are thoroughly underrepresented in the conservation estate as they are the areas that are ideal for farming and urban settlements, so have been modified for these uses. However, these areas contain far more native species and significant ecosystems than the alpine areas which are heavily protected. Our protected areas would have far greater impact for conserving indigenous biodiversity if they encompassed these areas instead of (or as well as) alpine areas.

Protected areas are important in an era where we modify the land around us at a rapid rate, but they are not as effective as we would like to think.

Conservation must be considered outside the conservation estate: we require that closer attention be paid to conservation in our backyards, on our farms, and in our cities – as these are the areas with the least protection and greatest numbers of indigenous species. We need to expand what we consider biodiversity to be and change how we approach protecting and restoring it. Biodiversity includes ourselves and the life around us, thus we should all enhance it as best we can and in as many places as we are able to improve our own lives and surrounding environments.


Brown, M., et al. (2015). Vanishing Nature facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, New Zealand
Seabrook-Davidson, M. (2010). An evaluation of the conservation of New Zealand’s threatened biodiversity: management, species recovery and legislation. PhD. Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand.
WDPA (2019). World Database on Protected Areas Data Download New Zealand. (Accessed 12 January 2019).

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