It's that time of year, when gongs are given out willy-nilly, when I like to award a gong too. A gong for a nong, you might say.

My New Zealand "Quote of the Year" category had some serious contenders but, in the end, there was one standout.

And the winner is ... Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa for this utter gem from last week: "The people come here for our scenery, not our wildlife."

The quote was made in response to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright's report, Taonga of an Island Nation: Saving New Zealand's Birds. In it she made seven recommendations to the Government, including investigating a levy on tourists to better fund conservation work.


What made the winning quote even more bittersweet was the fact that only a few columns ago, I'd praised Roberts for coming up with a tourism industry "election manifesto" that I labelled "forward-looking" and "strategic" - at least compared with Tourism New Zealand's relative non-approach to the future of sustainable tourism.

However, Roberts clearly doesn't want to tax the hand that feeds him. And if you follow purely economic thinking regarding the current tourism gravy train, then I get it. But to do so at the expense of the environment is, well, shortsightedly toxic. There goes his "election manifesto" right there.

Of course, he agrees with Conservation Minister Maggie Barry when she rejected Wright's recommendation of a border levy, calling it a "fairly blunt instrument".

Barry is in favour of introducing preferential charging for DoC's great walks and huts, and charging international visitors more than New Zealanders. Which, as Wright rightly points out, risks money going towards infrastructure and tourism services at the expense of preserving the very biodiversity that visitors come to see.

Because despite what Roberts says, many tourists do indeed visit for the rare and indigenous wildlife - and Aotearoa's birds are a huge part of that. As a bird nerd, I know this. Even most non-bird nerds know this.

We have 168 native bird species, 93 of which are endemic. In other words, they are not found anywhere else on the planet. I have fellow bird nerd friends who come here from across the globe and who are elated to get so much as a fleeting glimpse of them. Elated.

They totally get, in a way that many Kiwis don't, that our birds are in deep dung - and I use the term "Kiwis" somewhat ironically, given that our national symbol may be not much longer for this world.

So, what degree of dung are they in? Well, it's not good.


Four out of five birds are in trouble, with some on the brink of extinction. The number of species that are threatened is 32 per cent, with a further 48 per cent at risk.

We have 168 native bird species, 93 of which are ... not found anywhere else on the planet.

My thing is birds of prey. We only have three: the morepork (ruru), Australasian harrier hawk (kahu) and New Zealand falcon (karearea). The falcon is rarer than kiwi. Yes, it's on our $20 note but, if we're not careful, that's where it'll end.

Wright also made the point that the Government's Predator Free 2050 goal was all very well, but it came with little detail. Some species are at serious risk right now.

It also relied heavily on technology yet to be discovered and, while the science was promising, it could involve genetic engineering, which would require an open and honest debate with the public because "greater predator control was needed immediately".

"We cannot wait for long-term breakthrough science before stepping up predator control. If we do, the patient will die before the hospital is built.

"We need to be doing things differently right now. There is a time cost."

All of which sounds suspiciously like the very approach needed for climate change. As in, it was all too late yesterday, but let's keep pretending.

Because while this is about the birds, it's also a magnificent metaphor for the fact that time has actually - if we're honest - probably run out. It's now or never to save them - and ourselves.

Which brings me right back to the beginning, and to Mr Quote of the Year.

What he was saying, in a roundabout way, was he agrees with the Conservation Minister because he (and she) wants as many tourists tripping through the turnstiles as humanly possible. He clearly wants to just keep on clipping the ticket. Damn the torpedoes, and the wildlife.

It's all about the money. Because the economy will save us. Not the environment. The money.

All of which makes me love the birds even more. They're not obsessed with, or even aware of, the notes. Just the song.