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World’s wildlife—a critical economy

3 March 2015

The following commentary is provided by Dr Wayne Linklater, an associate professor of conservation science and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Wildlife is critical to the economies of nations. New Zealand’s wildlife – whales, dolphins, red deer, thar, albatross, kiwi, tuatara, fish and kauri – attract tourists. And the tourists who come to see or hunt our wildlife stay for longer and spend more, especially in our provinces and small towns, than those who come for our casinos and high-end hotels.

In Australia the economic value of koala alone was estimated at A$1.1 billion. There are no estimates for how much wildlife contribute to New Zealand’s economy, but if they contribute as much to our $10 billion tourism industry as they do to Australia’s, then our wildlife are worth about $1 billion in tourist spending.

But when the United Nations launches World Wildlife Day (3 March) it is not us but the world’s poorest nations, especially in Africa, on which attention will be focussed.

Africa’s poorest nations earn critical foreign currency from tourism—US$83 million in Sierra Leone, US$26 million in Malawi and US$66 million in the tiny nation of Eritera.

Between 20 to 40 percent of international tourism is for wildlife. Tourism brought over US$7 billion to the South African economy last year—about 80 percent of which is for wildlife. Only Kenya’s coffee exports earn more each year than the US$400 to 900 million from wildlife tourism.

And, of course, wildlife is food in Africa’s poorest nations—without wildlife, much of rural Africa would be less nourished, even starved.

But the national and household livelihoods of these poorest countries are threatened by heavily armed, well organised international crime syndicates illegally hunting and trading their wildlife to extinction.

The challenge of illegal hunting has grown. Trade between countries has become easier. Rhinoceros and elephant, critically endangered in Africa and Asia from demand for their horns and tusks, are just the small tip of a gigantic illegal trade iceberg.

This is not just a battle for the survival and conservation of species, it is war for a better future in the world’s poorest nations.

In New Zealand, we can feel somewhat removed from all the threat. But we have a role to play—an opportunity to support international wildlife economies and to grow our own.

New Zealander’s are frequent travellers for wildlife tourism and our dollars support wildlife-economies. But Kiwi’s can also be a part of the problem. Returning home with rare corals and shells, butterfly, or plants native to southern Africa and the Asia-Pacific is common.

There is also an ongoing threat from the illegal capture and export of our own wildlife. Thirty-two New Zealand species are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

Although intensely controversial, legitimate trade in wildlife, including endangered species, has to also be a part of the conservation solution. Income from wildlife trade ensures that nations are highly motivated and their economies can afford to protect wildlife. South Africa, for example, should be allowed to sell rhino horn and elephant ivory, albeit in ways that improve wildlife protections.

New Zealand could be doing the same with its wildlife.

Many zoos and wildlife centres would like to have a real life kiwi, kakapo or kokako in their collections and they should pay handsomely for the privilege. Our wildlife could be leased to the world’s public and private zoos and wildlife parks. China has mastered this. It has been several decades since China gave away a giant panda. Nowadays they lease them to the world’s zoos—generating millions of dollars in foreign revenue.

What we need is a legitimate market that can be supplied sustainably. Wildlife conservation should not be a charity but a business. The New Zealand taxpayer should not be a wildlife philanthropist, but a wildlife investor.

Importantly, if we make more money in these ways from our native and exotic wildlife, in addition to that from ecotourism, we increase wildlife’s value to a greater diversity of New Zealanders.

To make this future possible, many of us will need to leave our qualms about exploiting wildlife-as-a-resource behind. New Zealand could learn very much from Africa’s modern wildlife economies and their entrepreneurial and pragmatic conservation industries.

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Survey reveals signs of tuatara recovery

27 February 2015

tuatara babyThe tuatara population on Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island may be recovering, according to results from a recent survey carried out with help from Victoria University of Wellington researchers.

Since the early 1990s, an intensive tuatara conservation recovery programme has been run on the island, where the species had not been seen for 10 years.

In a collaboration between Victoria University, Department of Conservation (DoC), local Mana Whenua Ngati Manuhiri, Auckland Zoo and the Hauturu Supporters Trust, the programme has helped to save a threatened population of tuatara from extinction. The initiative has included eradicating pests on the island, which was declared rat-free in 2006.

During an eight-day survey in January this year, volunteers found four unmarked tuatara. Sue Keall, a technician in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences who helped carry out the survey, says this provides positive insight into how the tuatara are surviving.

“The young tuatara could have been bred from existing wild tuatara that were not seen during the original surveys, or from captive-bred tuatara that had been released on the island by the programme,” she says.

“We aren’t able to tell their age, but it is fantastic to know the wild population might be able to successfully breed again, now that cats and kiore (Pacific rats) have been eradicated.”

A number of areas on the 3,000-hectare island were identified for searching, based around where tuatara had been caught during the first survey period, locations where there had been reported sightings, or sites where they had been released from the breeding programme.

The programme sends tuatara eggs laid on the island to Victoria University to be incubated and hatched.

“Incubation at the university keeps them a bit safer—it stops the eggs from drying out or getting dug up accidentally by other tuatara on the island. We’re simply maximising their chances of success,” says Ms Keall.

The young tuatara are then returned to Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island for release.

Surveyors also spotted the endangered Duvaucel’s Gecko on the island, indicating this species is also in recovery after removal of kiore. Ms Keall, who was in the first survey team 23 years ago, says the island is showing encouraging signs.

“Because it’s such a large island and also is quite high in altitude, it retains a variety of vegetation types making it a really good varied habitat. It’s very exciting seeing species that were really struggling now starting to recover on the island.”

In August last year, Victoria University published rare footage of a tuatara hatching. The tuatara filmed was an offspring from the programme.

Watch it here:

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Populations benefit from having different kettles of fish

11 February 2015

Having weaker individuals in a population can strengthen its long-term stability and reduce likelihood of extinction, according to new research from Victoria University of Wellington.

triplefinThe study, which challenges the supremacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’, was carried out by Dr Jeff Shima from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, along with scientists from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Melbourne.

Their research was primarily focused on the common triplefin, a small marine fish found along shallow reefs and tide pools throughout New Zealand.

The Marsden-funded study discovered that having a mixture of fish with different traits had positive effects on the triplefin population.

“We wanted to test whether the weaker fish attracted predators, or created less competition for resources and ultimately boosted the fate of the stronger fish,” says Dr Shima.

From their base at the Victoria University Coastal Ecology Laboratory (VUCEL), the researchers used fish ear bones to analyse how the development of baby fish determines their fate as either a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’.

Baby fish that developed close to shore were comparative ‘winners’ because they grew faster, had more fat, were more likely to find their way back to adult habitats, and had improved survival to adulthood. In contrast, baby fish that developed in offshore waters had weaker traits and were more likely to become reproductive ‘losers’.

“The offshore environment is less suited to growth and development of baby fish, with less food, colder temperatures and a high likelihood of separation from adults,” says Dr Shima.

“This highlights the importance of coastal marine environments closer to shore, which can function as nurseries for baby fish, but may be more easily threatened by human activities.”

The research, published today in Biology Letters, used a set of mathematical models to explore the consequences of ‘losers’, finding that their presence can reduce the strength of competition between individuals and contribute to population persistence by adding to numbers and reducing fluctuations.

“We show, perhaps counter-intuitively, how less-fit individuals can have important effects on population dynamics and population size,” says Dr Shima.

The public can learn more about this and other research conducted from VUCEL at its annual open day on 7 March 2015.

For more information contact Dr Jeff Shima on 027 563 5475 or email

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Kiwis help with lab-grown retina

4 February 2015


In what sounds like a gruesome sci-fi plot, Victoria University researcher David Ackerley is preparing to grow an artificial retina.

The biotechnologist, and others in a world-leading international team, hope it could help to cure one of the most common forms of vision loss.

The retina is a layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye, connecting to the brain and allowing us to see. Though its cells consistently regrow themselves, this is an imperfect process - and some people are genetically predisposed to more frequent damage or the repair going astray, leading to degenerative blindness.

The "retina in a petri dish" will be grown from stem cells at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Ackerley's team at Victoria and a second at Johns Hopkins will act as chefs, designing the ideal DNA recipe.

Having successfully grown a prototype healthy one, their next step is to make an unhealthy one that mimics degenerative blindness.

"Now you've got it working, the question is how do you make it stop working in a way that mimics degeneration [of vision]," Ackerley said. "The key thing is you want to leave most of the retina intact."

The international team has been given a US$500,000 (NZ$684,000) grant for this work.

The trick to knocking out specific visual cells was to add instructions to their DNA that made them die when exposed to an otherwise-harmless substance, leaving the cells around them unharmed.

Ackerley, with the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, is currently studying how transporting such DNA recipes into cancer cells could become a revolutionary new treatment. His team's experience in this made him ideally placed to join the international research.

Once they have grown the new retina, they will begin first by killing cells, then seeing what medicines help the retina to repair itself.

"I wouldn't say we've got a cure for blindness . . . It allows you to look in a way that can't currently be done for new drugs."

The example could be followed for studying diseases in other organs as well.

"This is a great system for just being able to look at the cells without harming any animals, and actually looking at the human response."


Bacteria and human cells can have a vastly different reaction to a substance - it's why when taking an antibiotic the drug will kill bacteria without affecting us.

David Ackerley's DNA recipe instructions borrow from the bacteria cookbook, specifically the steps to make a certain enzyme. The original enzyme converts an otherwise-harmless substance into a toxic one, poisonous enough to kill a cell. Ackerley's lab has since turbo-charged it, making the enzyme highly efficient.

By inserting these instructions into the same page of the cookbook as the recipe for a visual cell means just these specific cells will use them.

Therefore, when the harmless substance is added to the artificial retina, the light-receptive cells will make the toxin while the recipe will stay inert and unused in all other cells, which will live.

- The Dominion Post

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US funding to research retinal disease

29 January 2015

Dr David Ackerley from Victoria University’s School of Biological Science is part of a team awarded a US$500,000 Falk Medical Research Trust grant to develop new models of retinal degenerative disease—–a major cause of human blindness.

Dr Ackerley will work alongside Dr Val Canto-Soler and Dr Jeff Mumm from the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, USA, to build an artificial retina of the human eye that mimics degenerative disease.

“My lab group will be developing genetic methods to enable very precise killing of specific cells in the artificial retina to permit study of how they regenerate, and facilitate discovery of drugs that assist with this process,” says Dr Ackerley.

Dr Val Canto-Soler recently developed world-first methods to induce human stem cells to grow into an artificial retina in a Petri dish.

Dr Ackerley has previously collaborated with Dr Mumm to create a system for effectively killing specific living cells without harming surrounding tissues, using specially engineered enzymes.

The Falk Medical Research Trust grants one year of funding to find new cures for diseases or improve existing treatments.

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Experts eye natural ways to control ants

28 January 2015


As Christchurch residents fight booming ant populations, researchers are working to find a natural control of the pests.

Residents across the city, including in New Brighton and Mt Pleasant, have taken to social media this summer to express their frustration at an increase in ant numbers.

Victoria University professor of biology and ant expert Phil Lester is part of a team studying populations to help find alternative ways to lower pest numbers. Lester was in Christchurch on Monday sampling Argentine ants, which are a "major international pest".

Populations of Argentine ants at Riccarton High School, on Tuam St and at New Brighton beach are among those being sampled across the country's entire distribution for the nationwide project.

"We're trying to find ways of natural control of these ants," says Lester.

With a team at The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), called the Virus Hunters, last year a new virus was found in the Argentine ants.

"From here, we hope to do some work to see if it is really harmful or not."

Lester says on a long-term scale, the research has the potential to limit the need for extermination methods and pesticides.

Argentine ants were likely to blame for the city's issue because they were "the most problematic in New Zealand", he says.

Argentine ants have been present in Christchurch, the southern-most point of their existence, for several years, he says.

"I'm not sure if we took them out of an urban environment they'd be able to survive. They need the warmth humans provide – and cities tend to be warmer points."

Cleaner Megan Thomson wakes up every day and wonders where ants will crop up in her Aranui home. She says the problem has been getting worse over the last two years.

Ants have taken over Thomson's kitchen, garage and have even been found in her bedroom wardrobe.

"They do cost you on so many levels and they cost you time as well," she said.

Despite meticulously cleaning her house, leaving bait out and hiring an exterminator, the ants are finding their way into any sealed and packaged food.

"You have to be on the ball all the time... you can't have a lazy day."

Lester said the movement of people and their possessions post-quake was contributing to the problem.

"These ants will nest in pot plants and that sort of environment, so they will be moved around a lot more like that," says Lester.

He said exterminating ants was an effective way to lower populations but it needed to be done collectively by neighbours so they did not "re-invade" properties.

Advice to lower Argentine ant numbers:

1. Prevention is much easier than cure, so if you're moving house, be very careful with what you move - for example, pot plants. If you're coming from an Argentine ant-infested problem, don't take the problem with you.

2. If you have Argentine ants already, then get the neighbourhood together for control, rather than tackle the problem by individual house.

3. Be clean with your food.

- The Press

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Victoria graduate helps ensure survival of New Zealand’s rarest kiwi

26 January 2015

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate’s work on the reintroduction of a critically endangered species of kiwi is helping ensure they remain in our forests for generations to come.

Rachael Abbott’s PhD research examined the best ways to translocate the rowi, the rarest species of kiwi, which has a population of around only 400.

The rowi’s breeding range is limited to the Ōkārito forest in South Westland, where stoats and rats threaten eggs and young chicks.
Rowi eggs are hatched by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The fledgling birds are then taken to predator-free Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds, where they remain until they reach a weight of at least one kilogram—big enough to run away from predators or fight them off.
Rachael’s research looked specifically at the issues affecting survival of the young rowi after they are translocated back to Ōkārito forest from the island.
“After rowi translocations there’s a period of about 90 days of increased mortality while the birds adjust to their new environment,” says Rachael. “DOC had been collecting a lot of data over the years, but hadn’t analysed it.
“I examined patterns in the historic data and then ran experimental releases to test my survival theories. Among other things, the size of the release groups was incredibly important—birds released in small groups don’t do nearly as well as ones in larger groups because of the benefits that come with increased sociality, such as sharing burrows and food resources.”
Rachael has sent through her recommendations to DOC and it is likely her suggested practices will be implemented.
Rachael started her research with a Master’s, and received funding from Victoria’s Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and the Holdsworth Trust (through the Victoria University Foundation), which allowed her to expand her work into a PhD and travel to conferences in the United States and Europe. She graduated with a PhD in Conservation Biology last week.

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Wellington abuzz as wild bee colony swarms on university

26 January 2015

The captivating mystery of Wellington's runaway bees has been solved, a day after they escaped from Victoria University's Kelburn campus.

Media studies administrator Yvette Butcher says a student alerted her to the mass exodus yesterday, the pair watched "thousands of bees" fly away, she said.

Beekeeper and PHD student Davida Santoro managed to capture some in a cardboard box, but they escaped before a new home could be prepared for them.

"…the trapping wasn't successful, probably because I didn't get the queen" Mr Santoro said.

The fugitive bees left residents bug-eyed as they zoomed around the capital, with several people sending in footage of their encounter with the swarm.

Mr Santoro and another bee expert from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences, Alan Hoverd, found the queen this morning setting up a new colony inside a wall of the university's media studies building.

Mr Santoro said students were never really in danger because the bees were just looking for a new nest.

"Swarming is a pretty spectacular event, you might be afraid of it, but actually they are really docile during the moment, they wouldn't sting unless they are squashed," he said.

New Zealand's bee population is being diminished by the varroa bee mite and the two experts believe they needed to do all they could to save the insects.

"Without bees you don't get pollination so there will be a reduction in produce... It has a nationwide affect," Mr Hoverd said. 

You can see footage of the swarm here

Source: ONE News

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A grim future for coral reefs—why it matters for New Zealand

26 January 2015

The following commentary is provided by Associate Professor Simon Davy, Head of the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

The outlook for coral reefs around the world is bleak—predictions are that they could be completely gone in just a few decades. Coral reefs are a vital part of marine ecosystems but are being destroyed by global warming and ocean acidification, as well as more localised threats such as agricultural run-off, poor fishing practices (unbelievably, cyanide and dynamite are used in some countries to catch fish) and coastal development. While New Zealand does not have coral reefs, we do have corals and we do have a responsibility to take action.

Across the Pacific Ocean coral reefs are declining at a rate of about two percent a year, and it may be only 40 to 50 years before they’re completely gone. What makes them important is their biodiversity—coral reefs are home to many millions of species, from fish and plant life to microscopic bacteria. They also provide a source of food and income from tourism for many of our near neighbours, such as Fiji. Australia, too, has the world renowned Great Barrier Reef. If these reefs are lost, some of these countries could find themselves in dire economic straits. That gives New Zealand—as part of its international stewardship role—responsibility to try to help stem the deterioration of the reefs and minimise the potentially devastating effects their demise might have on the health of our regional economy.

The most widely recognised threat to corals is the warming of the world’s oceans. Reefs are like ‘a canary in the coalmine’—warming of seawater by as little as one degree causes a process known as coral bleaching, where microscopic algae that live inside the coral, and are essential to its survival, are lost. A coral can only survive without these algae for a month or so. The algae are also the building blocks for a coral reef ecosystem which is an important habitat for fish, invertebrates and other algae. If they have nowhere to live, there is a devastating flow-on effect on the wider ecosystem.

Ocean acidification, where carbon dioxide from atmospheric pollution enters the ocean and makes it more acidic, is also a major problem. Corals need calcium carbonate to build skeletons, but when the ocean tries to fend off the acidity it uses carbonate ions, depleting the amount of carbonate ions available to build coral skeletons, or indeed the skeletons or shells of numerous other organisms.

New Zealand does have coral communities, rather than reefs, for example around the Kermadec Islands and in the Bay of Islands. However, we don’t currently know enough about them to determine to what extent they might be affected by climate change. There are also deep sea coral communities around New Zealand, which—along with NIWA—I am currently studying. These corals don’t contain algae, but are nevertheless under serious threat from ocean acidification because they live at the boundary of the area where there’s enough carbonate to build a skeleton. If that boundary gets any shallower they’ll be in real trouble, and we could lose a very important habitat as many deep sea invertebrates (e.g. sponges, squat lobsters and urchins) and fish, including some commercial species, are often found in association with these corals.

There is not really any good news for coral reefs. However, current research—including work by my team at Victoria University of Wellington—is looking at whether they can adapt to climate change. They might, for example, be able to take up new, more thermally tolerant types of algae when they bleach or they could successfully migrate to cooler or less acidic waters. The problem is the speed at which our climate is changing and our reefs are deteriorating—science is struggling to keep pace. However, if we can buy some time by resolving local human impacts like fishing and pollution, we might be able to make coral reefs more resilient to the effects of global climate change. That’s not to say we shouldn’t also be addressing the causes of climate change, but trying to control or limit these other factors might give science time to catch up so that we can implement the strategies needed to ensure that the world’s coral reefs aren’t lost forever.

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