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Habitat Destruction
Biodiversity in New Zealand
What Is Biodiversity?
Why We Value Biodiversity
Current State
:: Hunting
:: Habitat Destruction
:: Pests and Weeds

For most native species, the destruction of their habitat is a worse threat than hunting by humans – hunting targets a few individual animals, but losing their habitat affects all species in an area.

Habitat loss in New Zealand has happened in three ways:

  • Whole ecosystems have been converted into farmland, exotic forests and settlements.
  • Ecosystems have been partially removed, creating ‘islands’ surrounded by farmland.
  • Ecosystems have been degraded by the loss of species and disruption of their ecological processes.

Forests covered 85 per cent of New Zealand before humans arrived. Today the figure is 23 per cent.

After humans arrived, large areas of New Zealand forest were destroyed by fire. Some fires occurred naturally (started by lightning strikes, for example), or were caused by humans hunting food or clearing land.

Early Maori settlers are believed to have set forests alight over wide areas, destroying both lowland and upland forest. Particularly affected were the drier eastern areas of the North and South Islands. In the South Island, high-country beech forests and lowland conifer and broadleaf forests were replaced by tussock-grasslands and bracken (the latter’s roots were highly valued by Maori as a food source).

By 1600 more than one-third of New Zealand’s original forest cover was gone. Despite this, other habitats (such as wetlands and coastal areas) remained largely unchanged.

After the the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, a flood of European settlers arrived. Half New Zealand’s remaining forest had been converted to farmland and towns by 1920, and many more plants and animals had been introduced, some of which displaced or preyed on native species.

Most of New Zealand’s lowland forests, wetlands, dunes and estuaries have been converted into pasture or towns. Many lakes, rivers and streams have been modified by dams, drainage and irrigation schemes and by pollution from farms and urban areas.

New Zealand’s once continuous range of unique ecosystems is now a patchwork of isolated fragments. Relatively undisturbed habitats are found at high altitudes in the mountains or a few ecological ‘islands,’ some of these real offshore islands.

Today, most native forest clearance has ended, but in some places wetlands are still being drained and dunes are still being built on. Despite this, a far greater effort is being made in this country (through conservation and resource management legislation, and raised awareness of issues) to reduce the impact of human activities that are degrading (or have the potential to degrade) the habitats of native species.

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