Meet the people living Conservation Week Every weekWe're in the midst of Conservation Week – the Department of Conservation's annual celebration of people protecting nature. This year's 'Meet the Locals' theme brings one of our most camera-shy native species out of the undergrowth and into the media spotlight: New Zealand's volunteer army of conservationists.
It's not news that our awesome tourist-drawing, breath-taking natural environment is under threat. The battle against invasives, such as didymo, and the continuing pressures on water and land are ongoing, relentless and well-documented.
What you don't hear so much is the other side of the story – the Kiwis whose passion for restoring natural habitats in their backyard is making significant progress in restoring nature and protecting species from declining further.
A few years ago, conservation was seen as the preserve of tree-huggers in tie-die. Now, conservation is being embraced by an increasing number of everyday Kiwis keen to protect nature in their backyard. Last year the Department of Conservation’s target was 15,000 work-day equivalents from volunteers. They got a groundbreaking 19,393 work-day equivalents, from 7,935 volunteers.
It's a trend that's got seasoned conservationists at WWF-New Zealand excited. WWF has been part of the conservation movement in New Zealand for 35 years, protecting biodiversity, native habitats and pushing for people to live sustainable lifestyles. The conservation organisation says volunteers have always played a pivotal role in their mission to protect nature. But now, interest in local conservation is stepping up a gear.
Through its unique Habitat Protection Fund, WWF has distributed more than $1.4million to local community-led conservation projects in New Zealand since 2000, as fund manager for The Tindall Foundation. "When communities need a little help - for example to fund specialist advice, buy equipment or meet travel costs - they can apply to WWF's Habitat Protection Fund," explains Chris Howe, WWF-New Zealand's Executive Director. "The fund is limited, but we try to support as many local conservation projects as we can, recognising the huge part they play in saving native wildlife and rejuvenating local economies."
WWF’s Habitat Protection Fund has now grown to an annual $225,000 for local communities. In addition, there is a $50,000 fund – the Environmental Education Action Fund – for education projects that improve the environment and in doing so, teach people about ecology and nature.
A report by environmental consultants P.A. Handford & Associates in 2006 estimated that over 1,700 volunteers were putting in the hours in the name of nature in Habitat Protection Fund projects across the country. It's part of WWF's work for a future New Zealand where our species are no longer struggling to survive, but thriving and abundant throughout their natural range, and where all Kiwis live sustainable lifestyles.
Given that nearly 2,500 of our native species are listed as threatened, it's a mission that requires plenty of optimism, determination and passion for conservation – from WWF staffers, and the 150-plus communities that the organisation has worked with to protect nature. "Much of the best conservation work in New Zealand is done at the hands of local people," says WWF's Chris Howe. "Local people often know best what's needed on the ground, they can act quickly, and their local economy often benefits in some remarkable ways. It's nothing revolutionary really - look after the land and the land will look after you."
Take any of the communities looking after their environment and you'll find any number of examples of this truth. One of the most celebrated of the communities that WWF has helped fund through its Habitat Protection Fund is Raglan's Whaingaroa Harbour Care project which has seen its environment and local economy revive symbiotically.
Ten years ago, Whaingaroa Harbour was a brown, septic calamity. Flounder catches had plummeted, and the snapper had all but disappeared. Surfers complained of ulcers from the polluted waters. Posters appeared in town asking; "Does anybody Care?" Sixty cared enough to come to a public meeting, and half a million plants later, Whaingaroa is conservation history and a green cause celebre.
Stephen Reid, a local kayak tour operator, says he wouldn't have set up in the town before Whaingaroa Harbour Care; "I wouldn't say our business has resulted from the project, but we wouldn't be here if the harbour had been in the state it used to be."
His business, Raglan Kayak, now employs two full-time staff and three casuals to help with between 600 and 900 school groups and some 2000 corporate groups that come to paddle the harbour every year. They all spend money in the town before heading home. Down in the harbour, the commercial fishing fleet is up from three vessels in 1990 to eight today.
Money may not grow on trees, but the link between conserving nature and seeing the local economy thrive is clear. What's more, word's spreading.
Fred Litchwark of Whaingaroa Harbour Care was invited by the Kaipara community to talk about how his community solved Raglan's environmental problems and found "hundreds of people. The before and after pictures sell the story," he says of his town's renaissance from silted harbour to natural wonder. "But I was blown away by the enthusiasm from the Kaipara people, looking to do the same for their harbour. People are starting to get that it's not just the fuzzy green. It creates employment. It creates wealth, not only to your pocket."
So what's changed to make green the new black?
"I think people seeing how the climate's changing has played a big role in making a lot of people more aware that their own well-being – in fact, their own survival – rests on looking after nature," says WWF's Chris Howe.
"And people are finding out that conservation's good fun - getting together with your neighbours to do something positive and active like replanting, and seeing the native wildlife returning thanks to your efforts, that's incredibly rewarding. It may feel new but really it's just people getting back to our traditional role – we are guardians of our locality. Everyone's a conservationist."
It's an idea that Whaingaroa Harbour Care's Fred Litchwark expresses about the communities he's seeing getting interested in conservation: "Hokianga are having a go at it, and even way down at Kaituna. And everyone in-between should have a go! It’s so rewarding and it’s not that difficult. You feel bloody good at the end of the day."
WWF is inviting people who want to feel bloody good at the end of the day of running local conservation projects in their locality to apply to its Habitat Protection Fund - during Conservation Week, and every week. Go to wwf.org.nz for more information and an application form.
If you want to find out about volunteering for conservation, contact the team at WWF-New Zealand on 04 499 2930 to find out more about Habitat Protection Fund projects in your region.