Back before humans showed up in New Zealand, the islands were isolated from contact with any other landmass for millions of years. This gave the native wildlife time to develop in some unique ways. New Zealand has only one kind of native mammal, a bat. On the other hand, there was once a huge variety of bird species thriving in the predator-free country, many of them having evolved into flightless birds because they had no need to fly away from attackers. This left them defenseless once the predators arrived.
The possum population has gotten so out of hand that they actually outnumber sheep.When the first Maori settlers arrived and introduced animals from other Pacific Islands, many of the native species began to disappear, hunted into extinction by either human or beast. The arrival of European immigrants made the situation even worse. They brought their pets with them, not to mention farm animals like sheep and cows, as well as game animals to hunt. Today the native species continue to struggle against introduced pests such as the possum (originally brought over to farm for fur), the rabbit, and the rat. In fact, the possum population has gotten so out of hand that they actually outnumber sheep. The government has declared war on these fuzzy, unwanted immigrants, using specially targeted poisons in forests with large possum populations.
Some of the unique New Zealand species that have managed to survive the onslaught (so far) include the flightless brown kiwi, which has become the national symbol; the world’s largest parrot, called the kakapo; and the world’s heaviest insect, the weta. New Zealand remains a great location for whale-watching, and its waters are also home to orcas (killer whales), several kinds of dolphins, fur seals, sea lions, and the adorable little blue penguin.
Another icon of New Zealand wildlife is the paua. Paua is a kind of abalone found in New Zealand, and the seaweed and algae on which it feeds give it a vibrant blue and green mother-of-pearl shell. The shells were traditionally used by the Maori to decorate wood carvings, but now they are popular for making jewelry and are sometimes referred to as “sea opals.” The meat of the paua is prized as well and often made into fritters.
The native flora of New Zealand has also taken a beating since humans arrived. The Maori burned native bush to help them hunt the large (and now extinct) flightless bird called the moa. Europeans cleared huge areas to create pastures for their farm animals. Native trees like kauri and rimu were harvested extensively for building materials and furniture.
Despite all of that, there are still many areas of lush, green parkland in New Zealand. Cabbage trees and tree ferns such as the ponga have become as emblematic of the country as the kiwi itself. Ferns can be found just about everywhere, with over 160 species native to New Zealand. Over one-third of the country is now protected as national parks or forest parks. The Department of Conservation oversees the use of these areas, so any logging or clearing has to be specifically approved.
The government takes protection of the country’s ecosystem very seriously. It has strict biosecurity measures aimed at preventing new species of just about anything from entering the country and posing a threat to the native wildlife. This applies to plants, and fines are routinely issued to people who try to enter the country with something as seemingly innocent as a piece of fruit or a sandwich. So remember not to pack too many snacks when you fly into New Zealand.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad New Zealand.