A survey of nearly 150 frontline Department of Conservation staff has suggested they lack the funding and expertise to use modern genetic-based approaches that boost efforts to save threatened wildlife.

While the surveyed workers were interested in using genetic techniques to avoid inbreeding, manage translocations, and figure out how species are related, finding experts remained a challenge, the new study found.

Kiwi conservation workers have previously been accused of being out of step with the rest of the world in ignoring genetic issues such as inbreeding in conservation.

A decade on from a paper by late Emeritus Professor Ian Jamieson, which pointed to management gaps around the issue, Otago University's Dr Helen Taylor and her colleagues thought to go back to DOC to see what had improved since.


Their new study suggested this was changing and that attitudes towards conservation genetics within DOC have become far more positive and proactive.

For a country like New Zealand, where a key conservation approach to revive endangered species was to move populations to an offshore islands, genetics-based approaches were crucial.

"You don't want to found populations with small numbers of individuals when you are translocating birds from one island to another," Taylor said.

"You want to use enough individuals as you can to ensure you are going to capture as much genetic diversity as possible.

"I think we've come a long way in understanding the importance of genetic diversity, and the importance of avoiding inbreeding when we are managing our certain species."

But the problem remained, she said, that there wasn't enough money or expertise available internally to properly integrate genetics into conservation management.

She and her colleagues surveyed 148 conservation practitioners working for DOC on their attitudes to using genetics as a conservation tool.

The majority felt genetics was very useful for conservation, but remarkably few reported having the opportunity to integrate genetics into their work, Taylor said.


"The main barriers listed were a lack of funding and a lack of genetics expertise.

"The good news is, respondents who had experienced partnering with researchers from outside of DOC had positive experiences and were keen to do more of the same; they just weren't sure who to contact to make it happen."

The team behind the research suggests that better communication between DOC staff and conservation genetic researchers could help solve these problems, resulting in more effective management of New Zealand's threatened species.

"The people within DOC who have worked with university and CRI-based researchers in the past have had really positive experiences - they wanted to do more of that - but they don't always know who the right people to ask are.

"We found that a little bit worrying because we know there are lots of people working in this field in New Zealand - it's a really strong place for conservation genetic research - so that's where the missing link is: joining people up from DOC with the researchers who can help out."

Despite the findings, DOC told the Herald it had a number of successful programmes centred around the use of gene technologies.

"DOC's use of gene technology is increasing and as research into breeding methodologies advance, DOC will be adopting techniques that enhance the chances of survival of intensively managed threatened species," science and policy deputy director-general Bruce Parkes said.

These included the kakapo whole genome mapping project, which Parkes described as a "world-leading piece of research" that would help DOC to clearly understand the best breeding programmes for the endangered kakapo.

"Among other things, we hope to gain insights into the causes of the low hatch rates for eggs that have slowed recovery in the past."

It would prove the first time that any species in the world has had all individuals genotyped using these techniques.

An improved understanding of the genetics of takahe had meant all populations of the threatened species were now managed as a single metapopulation, with birds moved about regularly to maximise genetic diversity.

"This, along with more intensive pest control, has allowed the population to begin a strong, sustained population recovery, for the first time in the almost 70 years since the species was rediscovered," Parkes said.

Genetic techniques had further allowed to DOC to identify the genotypes of specific species of skinks to correctly classify a number of highly threatened species - leading to the cobble skink's new status as a separate species - and to improve translocation of little spotted kiwi, which had been through a genetic "bottleneck" as a result of the entire population being descended from only three to five founders.