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The ecological emergency, and the threat to our tiny snail

by Andy Foster
Last month the redoubtable PCGM wrote on Wellington Scoop about an ‘emergency with no urgency,’ following the Wellington City Council’s declaration of a Climate Change Emergency. At the same time as the Climate Emergency was declared, I proposed, and my colleagues all agreed, that we become the first city at least in New Zealand to declare an Ecological Emergency.

Climate and Ecology are of course linked, but they are also different. In proposing the Ecological Emergency, I was conscious of news that globally there are an estimated one million distinct species at threat of extinction, almost entirely as a result of the actions of one species – us.

MftE recently published the ‘Environment Aotearoa 2019’ report which paints a bleak picture. 90% of seabirds, 80% of all birds, 76% of freshwater fish, 84% of lizards and 46% of vascular plants are at risk or threatened with extinction. Almost 4,000 New Zealand species are at risk of extinction.

Population growth, Climate Change, pollution, habitat destruction, hunting and fishing on an industrial scale, and in New Zealand in particular introduced species, are putting impossible pressure on the Planet and our fellow inhabitants.

Does this matter? Of course it does! Ecosystem relationships would be disrupted and destroyed. Even if all you cared about was humanity, the world would be a much poorer place for us if as the song goes ‘we never saw eagles fly’. The immense diversity of life is an incredible and beautiful thing. What it would mean for humanity’s survival I don’t know, but I suspect we are playing with fire.

So is this an emergency? I think we know that it is.

So to the point of this article. Is declaring an Ecological Emergency just PR and spin? No. In my time on the Council, Wellington City has been on an incredible journey of environmental restoration. If there is any one thing I am most proud of as a City leader, it is being part of driving that journey. More on that in another article. Now we have a specific example of action being taken – by multiple parties – empowered by the declaration of an Ecological Emergency. Others examples are coming soon.

hill-signs [1]

Te Ahumairangi Hill has been in the national and local news and social media lately. A small number of people have cut – in a short period of time – a multitude (approximately 20) of illegal mountain bike tracks through regenerating native forest. As well as destroying vegetation, they have ripped out restoration planting, removed fences and signage, all paid for by you and me as ratepayers. Great work has been done by Council rangers, and volunteers such as the Te Ahumairangi Ecological Restoration group, and by other mountain bikers to restore the planting as much as possible. It is soul destroying that this has to be done.

However the most significant impact, which most people would never know about unless told, is on a tiny snail Potamopyrgus Oppindanus (or P. Oppindanus) [2], one of 69 endemic (found only in New Zealand) freshwater snails. Oppidanus in Latin means ‘Townsfolk’ – so an aptly named ‘urban’ snail.

Just 3mm long, this wee creature is found only on the slopes of Te Ahumairangi Hill in damp areas and streams. Ecologists are clear that its very existence is threatened by these tracks which reduce leaf litter and increase silt, damaging their homes. Being covered by mud could devastate these little creatures.

I asked officers to respond immediately with increased ranger patrols, looking at security cameras and agreement to look at trespassing illegal track builders. They responded with enthusiasm. Our Declaration of an Ecological Emergency was an empowering commitment.

In the words of Te Ahumairangi Ecological Restoration Group:

“In this race against time, we are thrilled that WCC are proactive in this space, with “Our natural capital” biodiversity strategy, and the first to declare an “ecological emergency.”

On Monday, again inspired by that Declaration, a gathering of leading experts and scientists from DoC, Te Papa, Wellington Zoo, Zealandia, volunteer ecologists, malacologists (snail experts) and conservationists will gather with City and Regional Council experts to discuss the threats to P. Oppidanus, and to urgently develop an ecological plan to protect the future of this wee species.

My hope is that we can work together with the whole mountain biking community and decide where tracks should go, and where they should not go. We will need some patience to allow the scientists to do their work, and also better understand exactly which parts of the hill P. Oppidanus lives on. It is often said that all the focus goes on the glamorous species at risk. This is about us living with nature and reducing our impact on a small part of the Planet, and a smaller creature under our Kaitiaki. A tiny creature, a huge principle.

Let me finish with two quotes, one from Jane Goodall who recently visited New Zealand, applicable to all that we do. “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

The other is from Pope John Paul II. “The earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship (kaitiaki). We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”

Councillor Andy Foster is a candidate for the Wellington mayoralty.