• 32 per cent of NZ's 168 native bird species "in serious trouble"
• Another 48 per cent of native birds "in some trouble"
• Environment watchdog recommends big funding boost, possibly through a levy on tourists
• Also recommends eradication of feral cats, genetic techniques, and ongoing 1080 use

• Govt rules out tourist tax, promises users pays on walking tracks


Charging tourists more to use the Great Walks will help rescue endangered species, the Government said after the environmental watchdog warned that New Zealand's native bird populations were "in a desperate situation".

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry immediately dismissed a proposal for a border tax on international visitors today in response to a report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright, which urged the Government to look at new sources of funding for conservation.

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But she said raising the price for tourists to trek the nine Great Walks would generate new revenue which would be "ploughed back into biodiversity".

Wright's report, tabled in Parliament this afternoon, laid bare the alarming decline of New Zealand's 168 native bird populations. It said one in three of New Zealand's native birds were at risk of following the moa into extinction, and four out of five were "in trouble".

"The situation is desperate," Wright said.

Barry said she was "very aware" of the precarious status of many bird species and maintained that Government was making strides towards addressing it. She also suggested the commissioner had not noticed much of the Government's progress on its ambitious goal to kill off all pests by 2050.

The commissioner's suite of proposals for the Government - some of them controversial - underline the enormous task ahead in protecting New Zealand's most precious bird species.

Wright is recommending the control or eradication of millions of feral cats, consideration of genetic techniques to control predators, and a levy on tourists to fund predator control.

She criticised the Government's narrow allocation of conservation money for tourism infrastructure, saying more needed to be directed at native flora and fauna.

The report's findings were based on Department of Conservation data which showed that 20 per cent of native bird species were "doing OK", 48 per cent were "in some trouble", and 32 per cent were "in serious trouble".

Birds in the most at-risk category included the kea, the wrybill, the whio, and two species of kiwi.

If New Zealand was to restore an abundant, resilient birdlife on its mainland, native birds needed three things - sanctuary from predators, a suitable habitat, and enough genetic diversity to be resilient in the long-term.

Of these, predator control was the most urgent.

The Government's ambitious Predator Free 2050 goal launched last year had helped focus attention on the damage done by predators, Wright said.

But the high-profile policy was light on detail and had no immediate, clear plan of action.

"All the disparate efforts currently under way will not just magically come together," she said.

MORE MONEY

Saving New Zealand's most precious birds would require "a great deal more money" to be allocated to conservation.

The Government committed $76m more funding for the Department of Conservation in this month's Budget, though most of it was for walking tracks, toilets, carparks and tourism ventures.

"The flora and fauna that draw visitors need much more help too," Wright said.

"It is not just birds - lizards, frogs, insects and other native fauna are also in trouble. And now myrtle rust has blown across from Australia, threatening pohutukawa, rata and manuka."

The report recommended a border levy for international visitors. The Green Party has made a similar proposal, calling it a taonga tax.

"Tourists do not come to New Zealand to shop," Wright said. "They come because they have seen photographs of stunningly beautiful national parks."

SKILLED KILLERS

Another hole in the Predator Free goal was that it failed to target wild cats, instead singling out only possums, rats and stoats.

"I have become increasingly concerned about the feral cats that now almost certainly number in the millions in the countryside and along forest margins," the report said.

"They are major killers of precious wading birds like the wrybill - the only bird in the world with a beak that curves to the side."

She said cats were particularly vulnerable to rapidly-acting, humane poison and the Government should consider research in this area.

Wright said she was encouraged by innovative scientific advances which would play a crucial role in eradicating predators.

A long-lasting lure for stoats in particular would be a major breakthrough, she said.

She tentatively recommended development of genetic modification to completely wipe out some species of predators, saying that consultation should begin with the public on possible uses of genetic techniques.

"But for the foreseeable future, the name of the game is predator suppression," she said.

Some of the promising genetic innovations in New Zealand include the development of a stoat lure using artificial pheromones; the development of toxins which killed only the target predator; and Trojan females, in which female predators pass on infertility to their sons.

Barry said there was no "social license" at the moment for genetic experimentation in New Zealand, but some innovative methods could be used to expand the gene pool of endangered species like the kakapo.

"I'm very well aware of genetic modification and engineering. But this is not what this is about."

A PLACE TO LIVE

Protecting native birds over the longer term would require not limiting them to forests and national parks, but bringing them back to farmland, coasts, and cities.

This was one area which had shown promise, the commissioner's report showed.

"The QEII National Trust struggles to keep up with the demand for covenants that place permanent protection on areas of habitat on farmland.

"Similarly, Nga Whenua Rahui is engaged with placing kawenata on Maori land. And the number of eco-sanctuaries continues to grow, with many on private land."

GENETIC DIVERSITY

The eradication of pests on offshore islands was a great conservation success, the report said, and some sanctuaries had also been created on the mainland.

But there was risk of creating small, isolated populations which could become inbred and struggle to produce health chicks.

"On Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf, a kokako named Bandit is consorting with his grandmother," Wright said.

"This may be a happy relationship, but it is unlikely to be a healthy one. We must guard against our birds drifting to the shallow end of the gene pool."

WAKE-UP CALL

The Green Party said the report was a "major wake-up call" for the Government and that it should prompt National to raise funding for biodiversity.

Conservation spokesperson Mojo Mathers said the Department of Conservation's funding had cumulatively been cut, in real terms, by $422m since 2008.

"We need urgent, co-ordinated action now - not in 30 years' time, when it will be much too late for many of our birds.