Over Christmas I visited Paengaroa Scenic Reserve, a 107ha patch of bush at Mataroa, near Taihape.
Whanganui botanist Colin Ogle introduced me to this very special place and to one of its most notable inhabitants. When you enter Paengaroa, you see a sign saying the shrub you're standing beside is a species as rare as the kākāpō.
Gardner's tree daisy (Olearia gardneri) is an unobtrusive small tree with light-green oval leaves on tangled twigs. At one point just 160 individual plants were known in the wild, making it New Zealand's third rarest native tree (there are currently 154 kākāpō, for comparison). Most of the world population of this olearia is at Paengaroa; the rest are scattered around the Wairarapa.
Botanists are worried because few of the trees were juveniles, and a combination of pasture grass and livestock was stopping seedlings from establishing.
Everything changed in 2013. A Wairarapa farmer was thinking of protecting some remnant bush on her land and approached the QEII National Trust about setting up a covenant. The QEII rep checked out the forest, and discovered a total of 374 Olearia gardneri, trebling the world population in a stroke. Many of the plants were seedlings, and these are now being planted out at suitable sites all over the Wairarapa.
Did you hear about this? Probably not, unless you read the Wairarapa Times-Age, which ran one story in 2016, the only media coverage of the discovery. If that Wairarapa farmer had found 374 kākāpō on her land, it would have been international news, the greatest conservation story of the decade. But unfortunately Gardner's tree daisy is a plant, not a bird, so nobody noticed or cared, and no corporation stepped up to sponsor the recovery effort.
There are plenty of unreported stories like this in NZ conservation. While people fret about Māui dolphins, less charismatic species are quietly and regularly going extinct in our backyards. Others are being rescued from the brink through hard work by DoC, Forest and Bird and keen volunteers.
For the last couple of years Jesse Mulligan has been running a "Critter of the Week" segment on his afternoon radio show, inviting DoC's Nicola Toki to highlight native species that are like these: overlooked, endangered, or both. I help by making sure there's a Wikipedia page for each critter they talk about (108 so far). Highlights of the 2017 series have included:
■The Spirits Bay liverwort, a tiny plant that has only been found growing on the bark of Bartlett's rata (which is itself nearly extinct, with only 25 plants left in the wild).
■The Mokohinau stag beetle, surviving in a single patch of vegetation the size of a living room, on an island that's too small to have a name.
■The chevron skink, New Zealand's longest lizard, surviving only on Great Barrier and Little Barrier islands, where it's very secretive, diving into streams to hide if spotted.
■The Back Beach beetle, restricted to a single sandspit near Tahuna Beach, Nelson, and threatened by climate change and off-road joyriders.
■ The Ōhau rock daisy, a shrub with large white flowers recorded from Ōhau Point north of Kaikoura; 95 per cent of the world population was wiped out in the 2016 earthquake.
These species and hundreds like them get very little attention, but they have just as much right to exist as kea and kiwi. For most of them, a few committed locals volunteering could mean the difference between survival and extinction. Let's make 2018 the year we learn to care about all the endangered critters of New Zealand.
Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum.