We often hear about the 4000 species in Aotearoa that need conservation attention. It seems like a lot, and reducing that number is one of the goals of yesterday’s implementation plan for Te Mana o Te Taiao- Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy. Outcome 2 of the plan says, “All indigenous species are protected and secure, and none are at risk of extinction due to human activities.” and “Species’ populations are healthy, genetically diverse and have increased resilience to future threats including climate change.” But how does an animal (or plant, or fungus) end up on that list of 4000?
First, we need to know about it. Someone needs to find the organism and describe it. Not to get all “known unknowns and unknown unknowns” on you, we are always doing conservation based on patchy data. A paper published in 2010 (Gordon et al.2010) tells us that there are 4315 marine species that we know exist because someone has found them and popped them in a collection somewhere, but we know nothing else about them. Of course, we know less about marine species as we’re not marine creatures ourselves, and we won’t serendipitously bump into new species at the bottom of the sea as we can’t live there unaided, but our data on terrestrial species is also patchy.
Once we know that a species exists, we can see whether it needs conservation attention. DOC gathers experts together, and they consult widely and publish Threat Classification for species and groups of species. But here also, we have gaps. For example, the 2020 update of the conservation status of our spiders told us that there are 1156 different species of spiders here but that we know so little about 493 of these species that their conservation threat status is “data deficient”. The populations of these 493 species could be OK and thriving, but also, maybe not? The Threat Classifications also show how fast we are still discovering new species. The 2021 Threat Classification update for parasitic mites and ticks tells us that in 2012 we knew about 11 species that fitted into this group, and now we know about 211 species. Spiders, mites and ticks may not be the most glamorous of creatures, but they are as indigenous to this place as our popular bird species and deserve as much conservation attention as other organisms.
If you’re still reading and possibly thinking, “maybe 4000 species needing conservation attention sounds a bit low”, then we’re thinking alike. And, think of the work it has taken to get even these data, patchy as they are. All the hours that someone has spent in the bush or at sea looking for creatures, hours spent peering under a microscope at the hairs on the back leg of an invertebrate (because sometimes that is the only way to tell the difference between species), hours spent learning about a creature’s behaviour and distribution, hours spent working on these Threat Classification documents. All of this is just to know that a creature (plant/fungus etc.) needs protection and before you can get down to the on-the-ground conservation work.
I am 100% in favour of the ambition and direction of Te Mana o Te Taiao- Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, and the implementation plan sets out how these objectives will be achieved. And it is a really, really huge job.