Protecting our place in silence

In my recent trip report, which described several days in the northern Ruahine Range, I referred to the presence of whio (pronounced fee-oh), also known as New Zealand’s Blue Duck. The bird has evolved in an isolated fashion and is not closely related to other ducks. It’s a strong swimmer, and one of very few birds in the world that lives its entire life on fast-flowing, bouldery mountain rivers. It’s most active during the edges of the days, and sometimes overnight, and it’s named after the feee-oh sound of the male’s call… moreso than the responsive squalk of the female. Whio are not as iconically popular as some of New Zealand’s other birds such as the kiwi or the kea, yet if you turn over a New Zealand $10 note, you’ll see a pair of whio on the back.

Whio are also listed as vulnerable to becoming extinct. They nest for three months a year in caves, log jams and under other vegetation, so the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to both spring flooding and introduced predators. The total population is hard to count, but a current estimate is for as few as 2,500 individual birds, scattered throughout the country and dropping. Being exclusively territorial they’re usually seen in pairs at best, which doesn’t help towards improving numbers. Occasionally, however, there are also good stories.

Its requirement for clean water and a high diversity of aquatic insects means the presence of whio is considered a key indicator of a genuinely healthy river, something that’s all too uncommon in New Zealand today. If you find whio, it means you’ve found a waterway that’s in a fairly pristine state. Keep this in mind next time you’re thinking of leaving a mess that will seep into a waterway, or throwing unwanted food-scraps into a stream, or washing dishes in a river outside a hut or camp-site. You may well be making life harder or impossible for vulnerable species such as whio, not to mention all the insects it relies on.

It’s fortunate to be able to see such birds in the Ruahine Range, but it’s something I’ve taken for granted that I can report having seen them without putting the very birds I’ve seen in danger. Sadly it’s not always the case. Despite being at risk of eventual extinction for several reasons, the whio is, at least, not generally in danger from people of malicious intent simply knowing where they live. From this point on, I’m going to write about lizards.

Recently an online thread of conversation was completely deleted by the owner of the NZ Tramper website. The original thread began when a herpetologist requested information about any lizards people had seen. A flurry of enthusiastic responses suggested locations throughout New Zealand where people had spotted all sorts of reptilian wildlife.

The thread was removed when concerns were raised about the possibility that information provided in good faith might be used by smugglers to locate endangered New Zealand lizard populations, making it easier to remove and smuggle them from the country for sale on the international black market. Even if the original query was made in good faith, the resulting information was online for anyone to discover with a simple web search.

To demonstrate the extent of the problem, this article on Stuff, from last year, details how several people from international groups have been caught smuggling Jewelled Geckos. Another recent article describes how smugglers have made use of information published openly on the web and in scientific papers, then entered New Zealand with the intent of locating as many as possible and removing them for sale on the overseas black market. From the latter article:

Fellow investigator Dylan Swain said the use of scientific papers to target populations was a worrying trend. Scientists were asked to code locations to help protect the species, but photos of geckos being released were being posted online, where they were monitored by collectors. “Since one release, 11 of the geckos have been poached again.”

One example given in that article suggests that nine Jewelled Geckos might have fetched $200,000 on the international black market, with pregnant females being worth a lot.

I don’t like such censorship of expression in principle, but it’s a sad reminder that, though interesting to discuss these aspects of nature, a group of people don’t care about it in the same way, and are more than happy to take advantage of the good faith of others. In such a context, I think I can tolerate being asked to exercise caution in providing specific details of certain things I might see. The Nature Watch website, which is by any other reckoning a fantastic idea for learning and sharing of information, is probably another target of interest for poachers.

New Zealand’s government is considering a law change, with a partial intent to discourage such smuggling. The the Conservation (Natural Heritage Protection) Bill would increase the possible maximum penalties available in much of our conservation laws by up to about ten times. Maximum penalties of $10,000 would jump to about $100,000, and maximum jail terms of 1 year would increase to about 2 years. The exact maximum penalties would continue vary depending on circumstances, commercial intent, and so on.

I submitted in this Bill in February (as I wrote about here), mostly to comment on a more general issue about access rights to public land which I consider to be very important, but I also commented that I generally support the Bill, as existing penalties have, over time, significantly reduced in the face of inflation since the last revision.

My own submission and the handful of other submissions are now also visible here. The speeches of MPs at the first reading of the Bill in parliament were generally supportive, almost entirely justifying their support on the grounds of deterring crimes that include smuggling, and also to deter people who harm New Zealand’s flora and fauna with other motives. There’s general all-around support from parliament, and this Bill is likely to be imprinted into law, increasing possible penalties.

I think it’ll remain to be seen as to how much effect it has on smuggling of endangered species, however, and any significant effect will probably require more than just a change in possible penalties. Having higher penalties available may be useful, but to have any effect it’s necessary for people to be caught within New Zealand’s jurisdiction, and that has to be seen as as a genuine possibility by those who considering smuggling of wildlife. It’s only then that the market price of Jewelled Geckos and similar species might potentially rise to the extent that demand might decrease.

For higher penalties to have an effect, there’s also a need for visible examples of the law being applied yet in the examples linked above, foreign nationals from Germany and Switzerland were jailed for only 15 weeks and 18 weeks before being deported. Under the current legislation, this is nowhere near the theoretical one year maximum, suggesting that a revised law will still not result in a judge sentencing anything near the new two year maximum. Even then, high and often extremely severe penalties for being caught in comparable acts, such as drug smuggling, don’t necessarily stop it from occurring. There are so many relevant issues, and the problem is complex.

I haven’t spent much time reading the relevant law, but part of it which I find confusing is that the Trade in Endangered Species Act already enables 5 year jail terms or $100,000 fines, depending on the classification of the species in question. For some reason, however, that law doesn’t include the likes of Jewelled Geckos on its lists of endangered, threatened or exploited species. This may be why dealing with such trade has involved reverting back to using more domestically-targeted laws, which only enable lower penalties. If this is the case, it seems strange that the law change does not also seek to update the schedules of traded species to include the likes of Jewelled Geckos. Going on available penalties, it’s as if New Zealand treats protection of species that are largely overseas with a higher regard than protecting its own.

I’m not really sure what to expect. My knowledge of this is limited, and I’d welcome thoughts of anyone else on the law changes, and what effects people think they might have. It seems to me that the problem is still a global one which requires continued international cooperation to really fix. It’s just unfortunate that the willingness to invite people to visit and enjoy our place can equally provide access to some of the negative aspects of the rest of the world.

For now, I may have to be content with reporting on whio.

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