The critically-endangered Maui dolphin has topped a list of New Zealand's 10 "rarest of the rare" endangered species, unveiled by a just-launched foundation that aims to pull our most threatened plants and animals back from the brink.

Joining the world's smallest dolphin, endemic to our waters and of which between just 48 and 69 are thought to remain, is the NZ fairy tern, the Chesterfield skink, and a handful of bugs and plant species most Kiwis have probably never heard of.

They include the Mokohinau stag beetle, found only on the Mokohinau Islands east of Auckland, a weevil assumed extinct for 80 years, an eyelash-shaped seaweed and a short-lived species of cress already officially classified as extinct.

Of more than 4000 species classified as endangered by the Department of Conservation, just 250 are in programmes and around 800 are listed as having a high risk of extinction.

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More worryingly, that number has increased by more than 200 in the last five years - and just a quarter of those on the brink are currently able to be actively managed by DoC.

While the cost to New Zealand of preventing further extinction was estimated at many millions of dollars each year, the amount needed to secure the future of some species could be as a little as $500.

The New Zealand Endangered Species Foundation, launched in Zealandia in Wellington last night, aims to support efforts particularly focused on those plants and animals on the edge of oblivion, eventually creating a $30 million endowment fund.

Already, more than $1 million has been raised from donations.

"We have some amazing biodiversity here and, as New Zealanders, I think we all have a duty to protect it," said the foundation's chairperson, former Wellington mayor and current NZ Tourism Board chair Kerry Prendergast.

"The whole country needs to be looking at it and realising the risk of losing our flora and fauna, without intervention."

And it wasn't just the "pretty" species that needed saving, she said.

"The Endangered Species Foundation is committed to focusing support where it's most urgent, rather than on what has the most public appeal."

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According to the latest DoC annual report, about $29 million of its budget was flagged for species conservation programmes as at June 2014, with a further $774,000 set aside under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES).

Several hundred threatened species were presently under active management, either to ensure their security or to better understand them.

Ms Prendergast said the foundation, which would partner with DoC and which was backed by some of New Zealand's leading conservationists and scientists, was designed to be apolitical and independent of the Government.

"I've known from my role in local government that some people would prefer to give money to organisations non-aligned to the Government ... so rather than give money to the DoC, they are prepared to give it the private sector."

Botanist and ecologist Dr Mike Thorsen, a key founder of the new effort, disagreed with the view that protecting at-risk wildlife should be DoC's job alone.

"Why do we always look at the Government to solve our problems? Yes, they've got a role to play, but as people who live in New Zealand, we've got a responsibility as well," he told the Herald.

"Yes, we pay our taxes and part of that goes toward helping, but some of us believe we should actually be doing a bit more than that."

Dr Thorsen conceived the idea for the foundation while discussing with his father Neil Thorsen, an experienced manager of philanthropic trusts, how a shortage of funds hampered the conservation of endangered species.

"We thought, could we raise a million dollars for endangered species conservation? - and we came to the conclusion it shouldn't be too hard."

Three years ago, the pair started to put the idea into motion.

"When we started we just made one small change to the original plan. We decided to aim to raise $30 million over five years instead of $1 million." People and businesses saw the merit of the idea, and today there was a "very diverse group" who had pitched in to help, he said.

"Today, the public are being given the chance to themselves help to save a unique piece of New Zealand from extinction."

The foundation, a registered charity, so far has just one part-time support officer which ensures that nearly all money raised goes directly to conservation projects.

Dr Thorsen told the Herald there was an "increasing urgency" to step up threatened species conservation efforts.

"We are only just stemming the tide, and we are not reversing it - there are very few examples of things actually getting better," he said.

"It's almost like a log jam on a river - there are all of these species that are getting rarer and rarer and that we are not working on, which is creating a build-up."

New Zealand has the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and with comparatively little resources to preserve them, he said.

Around 70 percent of our native birds, 80 percent of our plants, and all of our native land reptiles, frogs and bats are found nowhere else in the world. Yet our natural heritage had been greatly reduced over the past 700 to 800 years and was continuing to be degraded by introduced pests, human activities and the impacts of climate change.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said initiatives like this new effort gave her heart for the future of conservation.

"It is not always just about raising money, raising awareness is at least as important, putting the right people in touch with each other, celebrating and thanking conservation leaders from all walks of life, and providing high-quality information that makes the challenge of managing these highly endangered species easier."

While DoC was working with around 300 threatened species, and across an estimated 500 ecosystems - more than ever before - the department couldn't do the job alone, she said.

"A foundation such as this which will be able to access new sources of funding and make money go further is a perfect partner for DOC as we work towards our shared goal of preserving New Zealand's endangered treasures," she said.

"I particularly applaud their focus on some of the lesser-known animal and plant species, such as the knobbed weevil, limestone cress and the Chesterfield skink."

Environmental Defence Society policy analyst Dr Marie Brown, lead author of the new book Vanishing Nature: Facing New Zealand's Biodiversity Crisis, welcomed the launch.
"The foundation could help immensely by raising additional resources here - some species are running out of time."

But Dr Brown said it was also important we examined the systemic reasons for the loss of biodiversity and what she called conservation's "chronic" underfunding.

"We need to not only fundraise to cover the lack of funding by central and regional government and the under-use of polluter pays approaches but examine why the deficit exists and how to address it."

"The rarest of the rare"

Maui dolphin

The Maui dolphin. Photo: Steve Dawson
The Maui dolphin. Photo: Steve Dawson

The Maui dolphin is one of the world's smallest and rarest dolphins.
An endemic sub-species closely related to the Hector's dolphin, it is now found only in the shallow coastal waters off the west coast of the North Island.
In 2012, it was estimated that between 48 and 69 mature animals remained.
Entanglement in fishing nets and debris, mining activity, boat strike, pollution and disease, together with natural factors, continue to pose real risks to the species survival.
The next five to ten years are probably our last chance to save the Maui's dolphin.
The Endangered Species Foundation is assisting in investigating conservation initiatives.

Mokohinau stag beetle

The Mokohinau stag beetle. CREDIT: Andrew Townsend, DOC
The Mokohinau stag beetle. CREDIT: Andrew Townsend, DOC

The Mokohinau stag beetle is one of New Zealand's few remaining large beetles, measuring between 25 and 32mm long.
Known only from the Mokohinau Islands east of Auckland, it owes its name to the large antler-like mandibles on the head of male, which are thought to be used when fighting for mates.
Whilst we still have a lot to learn about the species, we know that it has disappeared from all islands in the area inhabited by rats.
The last known population inhabits a living room-sized patch of iceplant on a small, rat-free rock stack in the island group which is highly vulnerable to storm damage.
Though the beetles are difficult to rear in captivity, hopes for the survival of the species depend on increasing the size of the population through captive breeding, before translocating them to safer rat-free islands.

Canterbury knobbed weevil

The Canterbury knobbled weevil. CREDIT: Emily Fountain
The Canterbury knobbled weevil. CREDIT: Emily Fountain

Thought extinct since 1924, the Canterbury knobbled weevil was rediscovered in 2004 inhabiting golden speargrass in Burkes Pass, South Canterbury. Whilst the spiky speargrass leaves are thought to provide this large weevil with some protection from introduced predators, the total population probably numbers less than 100 adults.
Encouragingly, recent attempts to raise the weevil in captivity have been successful

Isoetes aff Kirkii

 The Isoetes aff Kirkii. Photo / NIWA
The Isoetes aff Kirkii. Photo / NIWA

This quillwort (a primitive aquatic fern) was historically found in several Northland lakes, but it is now considered extinct in the wild after it all but disappeared from its last known home at Lake Omapere following a dramatic decline in water quality.
Luckily, searchers uncovered a few plants, and now 12 of these quillworts are carefully tended in a Landcare Research aquarium.
They differ both genetically and in appearance from the two other quillwort species in New Zealand.
Yet to be scientifically named, it is known by its unwieldy tag name.

NZ fairy tern

The NZ fairy tern. CREDIT: Malcolm Pullman
The NZ fairy tern. CREDIT: Malcolm Pullman

The delicate NZ fairy tern is the most endangered of New Zealand's endemic birds, with only about a dozen pairs surviving on beaches between Whangarei and Auckland.
The encroachment of human activity on their nesting grounds (often, popular beaches) is a major threat to these birds.
Beach narrowing, mainly due to housing developments and weed invasion, forces the terns to nest closer to the sea, putting their eggs at risk during storms.
Introduced predators and human disturbance also threaten nesting sites.
An intensive conservation programme is underway to protect the NZ fairy tern and has successfully increased the population from an all-time low in 1983 of just three or four breeding pairs.

Limestone cress

The limestone cress. CREDIT: Alice Shanks
The limestone cress. CREDIT: Alice Shanks

Limestone cress has always been a rare plant, only inhabiting limestone outcrops in the South Island's Waitaki Valley.
Now it is found on just one limestone outcrop, where about 50 plants are known.
The reasons why it is so endangered are unknown, but are likely to include browsing by introduced animals such as white butterflies, snails, slugs, rodents and rabbits; shading-out by weeds, and a susceptibility to diseases and fungi introduced to New Zealand with cultivated brassicas.
Efforts are underway to protect several of the Waitaki Valley limestone outcrops by controlling weeds and erecting protective fences.

Chesterfield skink

The Chesterfield skink. CREDIT: Sabine Bernert
The Chesterfield skink. CREDIT: Sabine Bernert

Research over the past two decades has discovered many new species of lizard in New Zealand.
The Chesterfield skink was discovered in the late 1990s at only one location near Chesterfield, between Hokitika and Greymouth, in Westland.
Their numbers have decreased so much that few animals have been seen in the past five years, and a number of surveys have failed to find it elsewhere. The reason it is so rare are unknown, but much of its boulderfield habitat in Westland has been converted for farming.
Introduced predators are also likely culprits, having been implicated in the disappearance of many species of lizard from much of New Zealand.

Coastal peppercress

The coastal peppercress. CREDIT: Simon Walls, DOC
The coastal peppercress. CREDIT: Simon Walls, DOC

Short-lived coastal peppercress was only ever found around the Nelson coastline, from the Marlborough Sounds to Karamea.
Despite much conservation effort, this species has proved nearly impossible to conserve in the wild, and is now classified as "extinct".
Various diseases, fungi, insects and mammals have proved lethal to the wild plants, and diseases are making it very difficult to maintain a captive population.
All surviving plants require constant care.

Eyelash weed

Eyelash seaweed. CREDIT: NIWA
Eyelash seaweed. CREDIT: NIWA

Eyelash seaweed is very unusual. It is a tiny seaweed the size and shape of a human eyelash, and it is very similar to some of the oldest known fossils of multicellular organisms.
It is known from only two boulders, each at separate sites on the Kaikoura coast, where the number of plants fluctuates for unknown reasons.

Dune swale daphne

Dune swale daphne. CREDIT: John Barkla, DOC
Dune swale daphne. CREDIT: John Barkla, DOC

Dune swale daphne is a small shrub relative of daphne, that used to inhabit moist sand flats on the Manawatu, Wanganui and Christchurch coasts. Recently it has disappeared from all but one site where a few plants are thought to survive.
The only plants in cultivation are descended from a few plants collected in 1991.
Its moist sand flat habitat has been swamped by grasses and weeds, is frequently grazed by stock, and infested with rabbits and snails; all of which are probably reasons for its disappearance.
Intensive management of its natural habitat is needed to allow this species to be reintroduced.