It has been astutely observed that there are no reserved seats at nature's banquet table. The fate of our national symbol, the kiwi, is destined to appear on New Zealand's honours board of extinct species. Decimated by stoats, dogs and feral cats, the kiwi appears headed for extinction in the wild.

Despite valiant efforts by the Department of Conservation over the past decade, the attrition rate is rising. The Okarito brown kiwi chick, for example, was all but wiped out by stoats in south Westland recently.

It has been estimated that 95 per cent of all kiwi chicks do not reach the critical six months of age because of predation by stoats, especially.

The battle seems lost, yet the war can be won quite easily if the politics of the environment can be set aside.

Ideology will seal the kiwi's fate, not a lack of determination or finance.

If we continue to pour millions of dollars into providing mustelids - such as stoats and ferrets - with tasty morsels freely available from the local forest floor, extinction is a certainty. The kiwi's saviour lies with a rather unlikely ally: capitalism.

Consider the following: on hundreds of New Zealand farms there are native bush remnants of a forest that once covered the country. These remnants cannot be cleared for farming because of the Resource Management Act, and because many of the owners like having areas of aesthetic appeal on their land.

Yet they are essentially valueless in monetary terms. In many cases, possums and selective grazing by sheep and cattle are slowly destroying these areas.

There is no incentive to fencing out predators, thereby protecting the bush and the birdlife. Both then die a silent death. That could all change if landowners were given ownership and the right to trade in kiwi.

Some would argue that to apply commercial reality to an icon species somehow impugns its status. Others would suggest the kiwi is better off dead than privately bred, based on nothing more than a belief in the purity of being beyond commerce.

Such an argument would deny the world of art and culture a reason for being, because commerce is essential to its very survival. The tradeability of "priceless" art treasures is, in fact, necessary to truly value the magnificence of a Monet, da Vinci, or van Gogh.

Without such a trade, people would have to rely on Arts and Culture Minister, Helen Clark, and her assistant, Judith Tizard, to inform the populace of just what is worth preserving, and what is not.

Can there be a worse basis on which to decide the survival of our great works of art? An unkind person might well dispute the Prime Minister's taste and knowledge of such matters.

This is exactly what is happening to our wildlife. Politicians decide what is valuable and what is not because of the Crown's monopoly over native wildlife. It has never been fully explained by those opposed to the commercialisation of endangered wildlife why native plants are able to be propagated and sold all over New Zealand.

The mighty kauri's reputation as the Lord of the Forest is not demeaned by its seedlings being raised, bought and sold. Native trees continue to be highly prized for their timber, yet the Government bans the felling of such trees. Perhaps that is why no commercial planting of native trees takes place.

Why, then, should we not encourage those with existing bush habitat, suitable for bird life, to engage in the business of saving our iconic species from the well-trodden path to extinction?

The preservation ethos is alive and well within rural New Zealand as private conservation flourishes within the country. The Queen Elizabeth II Trust is inundated with requests from landowners wanting to protect the best of what remains.

Technology exists to exclude predators from these areas with the erection of predator-proof fencing at $175 a metre.

The precedent for direct commercial involvement exists in the Hamilton area, where the Department of Conservation is paying a private landowner $300 a chick to raise newly hatched kiwi - farmers would call this a grazing fee.

Such an arrangement could return a landowner about 6 per cent on the investment, based on the "grazing" fee paid by the department. The net effect would be to ensure the survival of our flightless birds, and the bush remnants would be restored.

The only downside may well be the restored dawn chorus exceeding OSH noise regulations. All the while, the landowner stands to make a few dollars for their efforts. It's called capitalism and it works because no species that has been domesticated or privatised has ever become extinct.

One of the main stumbling blocks to success is New Zealand being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which bans the trade in endangered wildlife. But no audit has been undertaken in recent years to determine whether such a ban helps or hinders the survival of endangered species - I suspect for a good reason.

The result is likely to show the ban is an overwhelming failure in its attempts to protect the world's wildlife if New Zealand's example is anything to go by.

* Gerry Eckhoff is Act's rural affairs spokesman.

Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment

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