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There can be no higher priority for the education of our children than a love for New Zealand’s unique biodiversity, and an awareness of how soon so much of this precious heritage will be lost if we humans do not change our ways.
Globally, the IPBES, which is the international body set up to report on "ecosystem services", warns that the great majority of indicators of ecosystems and biodiversity is showing rapid decline. An average of around 25% of species assessed, or around 1 million species, are threatened with extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.
The rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Recently the vice-president of the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU) warned that humanity’s damage to the natural environment and biodiversity is "just as threatening to our survival … as the climate crisis, perhaps even more so".
The situation in New Zealand is even worse because so many of our indigenous species are found nowhere else on Earth: 72% of birds; 84% of vascular plants; 81% of insects; 88% of freshwater fishes; and 100% of reptiles, frogs and bats. This unique biodiversity has had limited time to adapt to the invasion of humans over the past 700-800 years. As a result, the expert group advising the 2020 report, Biodiversity in Aotearoa, tells us that 80% of native birds, 88% of lizards, and 100% of frogs are threatened with extinction. Between 1996 and 2012 there has been a net loss of 71,000 hectares of indigenous habitat, mostly in areas of lowlands, wetlands and coastal habitat. These experts conclude that the decline in our country’s indigenous biodiversity on land, in freshwater and in the surrounding seas is our most insidious environmental problem.
There are at least two reasons why young New Zealanders must learn of these trends. First, we owe it to them to be honest about the damaged and eroding ecologies that we are handing down to them. Along with climate change, the closely-associated collapse in New Zealand’s biodiversity is a legacy that they and all following generations will have to live with. Second, we must give them all the time we possibly can to learn about the ways in which these extinction declines can be moderated and even reversed. I say again that there can be no higher priority for the education of our children than a love for New Zealand’s unique biodiversity, and a determination to protect it for future generations.
For the past 14 years the Orokonui Ecosanctuary has been a stand-out resource supporting these education objectives. There is nowhere in the South Island within easy reach of a major population centre (and hence large numbers of young) that can match the diversity of the indigenous ecology that has grown up inside Orokonui’s fence over the past 14 years. Nowhere else are visitors more forcefully confronted with the contrast between the beauty of the world within the fence and the much-eroded reality of the world outside. Since its inception, Orokonui’s talented, committed, and experienced staff have ensured that the sanctuary’s young visitors hear the lessons it has to offer.
Since its opening Orokonui has been visited by upward of 70,000 school children. Until Covid came along, most Dunedin kindergartens, early childhood centres and primary schools visited the sanctuary regularly each year, along with a growing number of secondary schools from Dunedin and other regional centres. Orokonui’s objective is to have each school-age child in Dunedin visit the sanctuary at least twice during their school career, and children from elsewhere in Otago visit at least once.
It is therefore very hard to see justification for the Ministry of Education’s recent decision to cease funding for the education programmes offered at Orokonui. Last week’s ODT editorial reports that the ministry’s funding priorities have instead privileged "wellness, identities, languages and cultures, better support for all learners including neurodiverse, gifted and those at risk of disengaging from education, stronger Maori coverage, and more access for Pacific learners". These are indeed relevant priorities for young people engaging with today’s world. But anyone involved in the education of the young (and I speak as a 40-year teacher) must also do their best to alert young people to the challenges they are likely to face over their lifetimes — and most of today’s young will still be walking the earth at the end of this century when the extinctions we see coming will be all over, with many more besides.
It is surely the case that priorities in education must change, and clearly a shift in priorities has motivated this recent decision. But whatever the new priorities may be, it is inconceivable that an awareness of the perilous state of biodiversity in this country and the world at large should have fallen so far as to receive no support at all. It is also the case that education on biodiversity loss can be given in many ways, for example with predator-control and weed-eradication projects, and in the classroom.
But it is very hard to justify a decision not to use the most powerful resource available to teachers to really show what is being lost, and to motivate its protection.
Sadly, as things stand, it seems that we will now not only bequeath an eroding biodiversity to young New Zealanders, but do a less-than-honest job in admitting our theft of their future.
■ Colin Campbell-Hunt is a former chairman of the Otago Natural History Trust, the governing body of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.