Captive wildlife breeding

Gerrard Eckhoff, the Central Otago farmer well used to understanding the science of breeding sheep to secure greater numbers and to improve meat and wool quality, has long advocated a similar approach to preserving some endangered species of our wildlife.

His has not been a lone voice but it is a singular one in that he has used his prominence in farming, local and national politics to argue the case. Unsurprisingly, it is an argument dismissed, sometimes with pretended horror, by those who would seek to preserve nature in its untamed, or at least unmodified, state.

Various individuals have also promoted the idea of actually farming some species, especially weka, for commercial gain.

Quite apart from the substantial revision of numerous laws and regulations, not to say the necessity these days to take into account the priority wishes of the tangata whenua, those who promote such ideas face overcoming decades of "green" propaganda, particularly that for which the Department of Conservation was established to nourish.

Hence, the Minister of Conservation, Kate Wilkinson, talks in terms of having a duty to protect native wildlife and their habitat; that such species are part of what she terms our "national identity" - with the inference that modification would somehow alter that national identity.

Most New Zealanders might agree with her, at least at an emotional level.

There is, however, an arguable case for expanding the breeding of certain species, in strictly controlled conditions, for the purposes of both increasing natural populations and raising funds for conservation purposes.

Doing so with weka seems reasonable: these birds once roamed in great numbers throughout the country, and within living memory.

They survive now only in scarce pockets, or must be brought to the mainland from the Chatham Islands where they still thrive.

Those who advocate breeding kiwi to increase numbers and to sell are on less secure ground because of the complexities which include, at least, the different varieties of kiwi, their nocturnal nature and habitat needs, and their relatively slow breeding cycle.

The breeding of kiwi that takes place now under strictly supervised conditions may be sufficient to maintain remaining populations.

As to other species threatened by smuggling, for which commercial breeding and sale has been advocated as a means of destroying the illegal trade, while this has been undertaken in some countries there are particular local difficulties here.

In the case of jewelled geckos, for example, these include the difficulty of breeding them in captivity and slow reproduction rates. Where the concern is poaching, the answer is to ensure the penalties for such a crime are so severe as to act as a deterrent, and are globally publicised.

The present penalties are almost laughably moderate and have proven to be no disincentive.

Captive breeding is, of course, already widely practised here as an institutional or authorised means of preserving animals and birds that are in danger of extinction, and in some cases has been very successful.

Species such as the black robin and kakapo have survived through such efforts, and captive breeding of tuatara has been especially successful. It is relevant, too, that most zoos in the world today are filled with animals and birds that have been bred within captivity, rather than taken from the wild, often by other zoos.

Similarly, the Australian example quoted recently of commercial crocodile farming and trading is one that appears to have had many advantages and few disadvantages.

Here, the Department of Conservation is constantly avowing that it does not have sufficient funds to fulfill its purpose, and the recent budgetary steps will make its task even more challenging. The department's brief has become so broad that it faces a colossal task just to maintain what it has already achieved, and that - when examined rationally - is far from being satisfactory.

With so many species listed as endangered in New Zealand, and such a scarcity of funds even to prepare the means of preservation and conservation of them, it is certainly timely that some other options be considered.

Captive commercial breeding is one such option, and the department - which should have control of any such development - ought to be dedicating effort to its consideration.

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