Archive for the 'The natural world' Category

Seeds of hope

Jane Goodall in 2007 (click for image credit)

Jane Goodall in 2007 (click for image credit)

Yesterday I was part of a capacity audience that gathered at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, to hear celebrated English scientist and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall speak and promote her latest book, Seeds of hope.

Her story is a remarkable one. Growing up in the 1940s, she showed a strong affinity for animals and an enquiring mind. Early on she decided that she wanted to go to Africa to study animals and write about them. But her family did not have much money – she wasn’t able to go to university – and in any case, at that time girls were not encouraged to dream such big dreams.

However, Goodall persisted, and when the opportunity arose to visit a school friend in Kenya she waitressed to raise money to travel there. In Kenya she visited archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey and so impressed him with her knowledge that he offered her a job as an assistant. With Leakey and others she went on a field trip to the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and her abilities convinced Leakey that she was the person to study wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park, also in Tanzania. She first went to Gombe in 1960 (with her mother as her only companion) and gradually gained the confidence of the chimpanzees so she could observe their behaviour.

There she made a breakthrough discovery that changed the way we think about animals. One day she noticed a chimpanzee sitting beside a termite mound, poking a piece of grass into it. The termites clung to the grass and the chimp then proceeded to eat them. Then she saw another chimp stripping the leaves from a twig in order to do the same thing. She concluded that chimpanzees could not only use tools, but make tools – an attribute previously considered to be the preserve of humans. As Leakey remarked when she reported this to him: ‘Now we will have to redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.’

This work prompted National Geographic coverage of her work and instant celebrity. Leakey encouraged her to go to Cambridge University to study for a PhD – a huge challenge for someone who did not even have an undergraduate degree. There she was affronted by the attitude of scientists who insisted that she should not have named the chimps in her study, but rather given them numbers, and who rejected any suggestion that animals had emotions. This conflicted with her observations, which convinced her that chimpanzees not only had complex social behaviours, but expressed emotions such as fear, rage, happiness and grief. And, as she remarked to the audience, anyone who has shared their life with a pet knows they have personalities and feelings.

Goodall nevertheless enjoyed academic work, gained her PhD and returned to Gombe to continue her fieldwork and setting up the Jane Goodall Institute. She wrote numerous books, including In the shadow of man (1971), which I remember poring over as a child.

But a conference she attended in the 1980s led to a change of direction. The discussions focused on the threat to various species because of the worldwide loss of habitats. As she put it, she went to the conference a scientist and left an activist.

On her return to Gombe she realised that the forest, which had been extensive when she first arrived, was now reduced to a fragment, threatening the viability of chimpanzee populations within it. She also recognised that the people who lived nearby were struggling to scratch a living from the infertile soil. So her first step was to approach them to see how she could help improve their lives. This led to a range of development programmes to establish tree nurseries, improve water supplies, and encourage further education, particularly for women and girls. The social benefits were soon apparent, and one consequence was that the locals agreed to leave the forest margins to regenerate. Many of them became involved in the work of monitoring the chimpanzees.

Goodall went further, supporting the conservation of species worldwide – and she referred to extraordinary efforts in New Zealand to bring species such as the black robin back from the brink of extinction. She has also started a youth programme that now operates in over 130 countries, called Roots and Shoots. Young people are encouraged to adopt three projects in their local communities – one to benefit people, one to benefit animals and one to benefit the environment. Her recognition of the interconnectedness of causes resonated strongly with me and clearly with the rest of the audience, who rose to their feet at the end to give her a prolonged ovation.

A fragile-looking, elegant woman, at the age of 80 Goodall still travels 300 days of the year to promote conservation and animal rights and spread her message of hope. To hear her talk and see her sincerity and respect for all species is truly inspirational.

Of forests, paddocks and bush

A rather romantic painting of a New Zealand kauri forest (click for image credit)

A rather romantic painting of a New Zealand kauri forest (click for image credit)

Recently I’ve been reading Gossip from the forest by Sara Maitland, an English book about the relationship between forests and fairy tales, and forests and people. Each chapter contains a ramble through a different English or Scottish forest, some musings and lots of fascinating information about trees, animals, history, fairy tales and people, and then ends with a retelling of a relevant fairy tale. I’m find thing it’s making me reflect on my own feelings about New Zealand’s forests. And I’m also learning a lot about British forests.

So far I’ve learned that the pre-modern relationship between people and forests in Europe was generally quite symbiotic. That the selective cutting, coppicing (cutting off the trunk of the tree and letting new shoots grow from the stump) and pollarding (when a tree’s branches are cut off and allowed to regrow) was good for the biodiversity of a forest, and allowed the trees to live longer. I also learned what coppicing was – it’s a term I’ve never heard before.

I’m not sure that either of those methods work with native New Zealand trees (though I can confirm that they do with the holly and sycamore trees I’ve been having a hard time killing). By the time European settlers got to New Zealand this sustainable living with and in the forest was out and the agricultural revolution was in. Why have lots of trees when you can instead have green productive farmland? In consequence, native forests tend to remain only in isolated areas or on mountains in New Zealand – generally areas that are no good for agriculture.

This interactive map, which shows which parts of New Zealand were forested in the years 1000, 1840 and 2000, indicates that forest loss began even before European settlers made it to New Zealand. Between 1000 and 1840 forest cover reduced from about 80% to 50%, at least partly due to Māori making use of fire in agriculture and hunting. New Zealanders’ relationship with forests is not exactly symbiotic – we have got a lot out of the forests, but the forest has not got a lot out of us.

Bush burned to create farmland (click for image credit)

Bush burned to create farmland (click for image credit)

Settlers changed New Zealand’s landscape in various ways, one of which is that now a green grassy paddock looks a lot like nature to most of us, but in the last few years I’ve been realising more and more how unnatural that really is. A lot of effort has gone in to making those green pastures, a lot of cutting or burning and a lot of fertiliser. A couple of years ago I first visited the UK, and while on a train from London to Edinburgh I got to see the landscape that our rural landscape is trying to look like – the landscape that most of the first European settlers came from. But now, reading Gossip from the forest, I’m realising that the rolling green fields in England and Scotland aren’t really ‘natural’ there either. Forest covered much more of the British Isles, and stock was able to graze within many forests. It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution hit that forests were seen as a barrier to farming.

So the forests visited by Sara Maitland, the author and narrator of the book, are often remnants, or even re-growths of old forests. These forests sound like charming, almost friendly places. With bluebells in the spring, and clearings and sun. The thing that has struck me the most is how different they sound to our forests. For a start, we generally don’t generally say ‘forest’ – ‘the bush‘ is our favoured term. And New Zealand bush is a gorgeous thing to behold and adventure through, but not a good place to go off-track or get lost in. It can be deadly. I remember a very sharp terror of having somehow wandered off the track by myself in a fairly tame bit of bush, and realising I was lost. The bush is so dense that you could be anywhere. (I managed to bash my way through the bush to the nearby road – fortunately I wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere).

New Zealand bush is beautiful and all, but don't get lost in it (click for image credit)

New Zealand bush is beautiful and all, but don't get lost in it (click for image credit)

Just this week there was a report of a tourist who took one track rather than another and ended up lost for three days in Fiordland. If she didn’t have survival skills, the outcome of her story might not have been so good. So, like many New Zealanders, my feelings about the bush are not just fond, but also respectful and a little bit fearful.

I grew up in a little place called Pinehaven, so named because of the pine trees that grow on the hills that virtually surround it. We also had quite a bit of native bush around, including ‘the-bush-at-the-front’ and ‘the-bush-down-the-back’ of our house. Rimu was my favourite tree – for reasons I’m not really sure about, but probably have something to do with the fact that we had a least one quite large specimen in the back bush, and I was in the Rimu ‘house’ at primary school. The other houses were Kauri, Tōtara and Pine. I think I was a reasonably old child before it dawned on me that pine trees weren’t actually native. I guess when something has been around long enough – like pine trees and rolling green fields, they start to seem like they’ve been there forever.

Hochstetter’s maps and sketches

Pencil and watercolour sketch of Pirongia (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

Pencil and watercolour sketch of Pirongia (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

The Hochstetter Collection held in Basel, Switzerland, contains a variety of 19th-century documents and images of the New Zealand landscape, most of which have not been seen by New Zealanders since they were collected by geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, who visited the country in 1858–59. Sascha and Sandy Nolden are producing a catalogue of the collection, and a few months ago I wrote about the first two volumes, covering paintings and photographs. The third volume, covering maps and sketches, has now been published.

In some ways this is the most exciting volume because it consists largely of material created by Hochstetter himself. Hochstetter was always sketching and taking notes wherever he went. The sketches were not intended to be works of art, but rather records that he could use in producing maps and writing up a summary of the geology. Sometimes he filled in a sketch with watercolour, as in the image of Mt Pirongia above.

'Mount Wellington oder Maunga Rei' (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

'Mount Wellington oder Maunga Rei' (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

One of the first surveys that Hochstetter undertook, in January 1858, was to examine the geology of the Auckland area and map the volcanic cones. He was accompanied for much of the time by Charles Heaphy, who had a long-term interest in geology and had compiled his own map of the volcanoes. Hochstetter already had some experience in mapping volcanic cones from his work in the Eifel volcanic field in Germany, and was able to apply this in Auckland. He made detailed maps of individual volcanoes, including Mt Wellington, shown above, and compiled this into a map of the Auckland volcanic field, which was later published after he returned to Vienna. The mapping of Heaphy and Hochstetter provides a record of Auckland’s volcanic cones before many of them were quarried away, and is being examined again in the 21st century as there are moves to protect the remaining volcanic cones.

'Ruapehu and Tongariro' (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

'Ruapehu and Tongariro' (Ferdinand Hochstetter)

Lake Taupō was the southernmost part of Hochstetter’s exploratory trip around the central North Island in 1859. He was very keen to visit the Ruapheu-Tongariro volcanoes that dominate the landscape, and visited chief Iwikau Te Heuheu Tukino III at Tokaanu to seek permission. This was not forthcoming, so he had to content himself with sketching the mountains from a distance, in his notes comparing Tongariro with Vesuvius.

Images of tiki from Tokaanu and Ōhinemutu (Augustus Koch)

Images of tiki from Tokaanu and Ōhinemutu (Augustus Koch)

Hochstetter’s party was led by local Māori guides, and wherever he went he also gathered information on place names and cultural features. His maps provide a valuable record of names provided to him in 1859. Artist Augustus Koch, who was a member of the party, recorded these carved figures or tiki at marae they visited at Tokaanu (at the southern end of Lake Taupō) and Ōhinemutu (near Rotorua).

There was great interest in the giant extinct bird, the moa, and Hochstetter was keen to collect bones that he could take back to Austria. While he and Haast were exploring the Nelson district they took part in excavations of a cave in the Aorere valley, recovering a number of bones, and the excavations were recorded by Christopher Maling.

Sketch of an imaginary encounter with a moa (attributed to Ferdinand Hochstetter)

Sketch of an imaginary encounter with a moa (attributed to Ferdinand Hochstetter)

There was much speculation about the lifestyle of the moa, and whether they had been wiped out by early Māori settlers. This sketch, attributed to Hochstetter, portrays an imaginary encounter between a Māori hunter and moa sheltering in the caves. It is, perhaps a preliminary sketch for a reconstruction of a moa that he was to later publish in the account of his travels in New Zealand.

This new volume makes a major contribution to our knowledge of Hochstetter’s travels in New Zealand in 1858-59 as well as other aspects of life and landscape at that time. The Nolden brothers are to be congratulated on producing such an attractive and scholarly catalogue of documents that might otherwise have remained hidden.

As part of his PhD thesis, Sascha Nolden has transcribed and translated the letters that Hochstetter wrote to Haast after he left New Zealand – a 25 year long correspondence that has been largely overlooked by researchers because it is entirely written in German. The English translations have now been published by the Geoscience Society of New Zealand as a free downloadable PDF (4.5 MB): The correspondence of Ferdinand von Hochstetter and Julius von Haast.

Sascha Nolden and Sandy B. Nolden, Hochstetter Collection Basel. Part 3 – New Zealand maps and sketches. Auckland: Mente Corde Manu Publishing, 2013, 127 pages.

The publisher can be contacted at: mente.corde.manu@gmail.com

Man of vision – subantarctic expedition 7

Rodney Russ and his Zodiac at Campbell island

Rodney Russ and his Zodiac at Campbell Island

Today we travelled across rolling grey seas from Campbell Island to Bluff. It is a long 36-hour journey. Most of us spent the day reading, eating, organising photos and going to lectures. Little blog-worthy in all that. So instead I went and had a chat with Rodney Russ, the energetic genius behind Heritage Expeditions. His is a fascinating and inspiring Kiwi story.

Rodney grew up in Nelson in a family of farmers who worked the land once owned by Sir David Monro, speaker of the House and father of Charles, who is credited with bringing rugby to New Zealand. As the eldest son, Rodney was expected to inherit the land, but, in his own words, he was ‘born under a wandering star’. So on leaving school, he tramped in the hills and worked in a shearing gang. In 1968 he became a trainee with the Wildlife Service. He found himself working on rare and endangered birds with some remarkable people – Brian Bell, Rod Morris and Don Merton.  He was one of Don Merton’s team which successfully transported the surviving black robins (of ‘Old Blue’ fame) from Little Māngere Island to Māngere in the Chathams. Rodney operated the Zodiacs. Later he discovered a population of kākāpō on Stewart Island/Rakiura.

Rodney’s discovery of the subantarctic islands came when he was still a trainee.  He was sent down to the Auckland Islands as ‘the boy’ to drive boats for a joint US/New Zealand/Australian expedition in the summer of 1972–73. He returned there in 1974 and the following year was in the party that removed sheep from the northern block of Campbell Island. While at Campbell he managed to get onto the precipitous Dent Island, where he rediscovered the flightless teal, which was extinct on the main island.

With unique experiences under his belt, now was the time for higher education – but not, as one might imagine, in ornithology or botany. Instead Rodney enrolled at Otago University and completed a double degree in theology and history. He speaks warmly of what he learnt from the distinguished historians Erik Olssen, Tom Brooking and Gordon Parsonson. During the university vacations he began to offer a holiday programme in South Island national parks. He discovered the joy of teaching people about their natural and historical heritage.

Now came the crucial decision. He realised that the Wildlife Service was shortly to be followed by DOC; he did not look forward to a life of writing reports in front of a computer and felt that the prevailing trends were too elitist and arrogant. Long-term conservation, he believed, grew out of community attitudes. The best protection for the environment in the end was to educate people about the natural and historical world. Participatory tourism was the idea – people could learn while having fun. So in 1985 Rodney set up Southern Heritage Tours. He offered guided trips around the Otago goldfields and winter cruises to Fiordland.

In 1989 came the first commercial tourist trip to the subantarctics. Rodney chartered the research vessel the Acheron and took eight or nine people south. It was a success, so the next year he took over a Tauranga boat, Pacific Ruby. It was normally used for Pacific tours, but the cyclone season offered an opportunity in the New Zealand summer. Now 18 people were taken along. It was not always very pleasant – the boat came to be known as ‘rolling Ruby’! But the venture showed a clear demand for educational tourism in the subantarctics.

Then in 1993 Rodney got a call about the possibility of chartering a Russian ship capable of taking 50 people, but he had to guarantee to hire it for 100 days. This meant that Antarctic trips would have to be added to the range of voyages. He immediately went to the bank to ask for $1 million in working capital. They laughed at him. But he found the money somehow, and Heritage Expeditions was formed.

In 2008 the programme was further expanded when Rodney decided to hire a Russian boat, now named the Spirit of Enderby, for the full 365 days a year in what is called a ‘bare boat charter’. Heritage Expeditions hires the whole crew – the team of Russian sailors, the magnificent chefs and the hugely knowledgeable team of scientists and lecturers. Each summer Rodney’s outfit offers six trips to the subantarctics and two to the Antarctic; and over the New Zealand winter they sail north to explore the Russian Far East waters – the Kuril and Commander Islands, where polar bears join the other forms of arctic sea life to give thrills and knowledge to the customers. He notes that as someone who does not drink vodka and refuses to offer back-handers, it is not always easy working with the Russian bureaucracy; but persistence has made it work.

Several aspects are hugely impressive about this visionary operation. One is that Rodney himself is totally hands-on. He still, as in the 1970s, gets into his dungarees and gumboots and operates the Zodiacs to drop people off at fascinating places. He gives the lectures on history. He is a born teacher. As for the back-office finances and logistics, he leaves those in the hands of a general manager in Christchurch. Secondly, Rodney has retained the conviction that tourism can, and should be, an educational experience. The lectures and in-the-field discussions were superb.

Nor does the vision stop there. Rodney is now building an 80-foot sail-assisted motor vessel to attract fee-paying passengers who wish to take part in research explorations. He is looking at hard-core birders, botanists and photographers, mostly Kiwis and Aussies.  He is planning documentary film trips. The idea that tourism and knowledge will in the end serve to strengthen the conservation of nature and history is an inspired vision.

Even for one who spent about four months reading and thinking about the subantarctics while writing the entry in Te Ara I have learnt heaps in the past seven days. It has been an unforgettable experience. To Rodney, your team of naturalists and your taciturn Russian crew, thank you heaps.

Farewell from Campbell Island

Farewell from Campbell Island

Postscript: I returned to Bluff on 30 December. There I discovered two things: 1. The whole time that Rodney had been lecturing to us, driving round in Zodiacs and planning our education and entertainment, he was also on the telephone constantly dealing with a crisis – his other ship was caught in the Antarctic ice. It was world news, but Rodney kept his calm demeanour.

2. As we  sailed into Bluff I looked up at the hills with roads carved into them and houses dotted everywhere. It brought into stark relief, after seeing the subantarctics in all their unspoilt glory, just what human beings do to the environment!

Favourite native plant – subantarctic expedition 6

Pleurophyllum speciosum on the slopes of Mt Honey, Campbell Island

Pleurophyllum speciosum on the slopes of Mt Honey, Campbell Island

Today, our last day on Campbell Island, I was woken up at 5 a.m. because I had agreed to join a small party of hardy souls who were intending to climb to the top of Mt Honey, at 560 metres the highest spot on Campbell Island. The attraction for me was to get a last memorable view over this beautiful landscape. It was a tough old trudge and by the time we got to the summit the clag had descended and we could not see very much below. But on the way up I achieved what had attracted me to come south in the first place.

It was a photo of the megaherb Pleurophyllum speciosum which had caught my fancy – its cluster of brilliant mauve flower heads and huge leaves were obviously a sight worth coming a long way to see. I had decided to do just that. I had read that their major flowering occurred in late December – so I timed my trip to coincide with the season.

Well, I had so far been disappointed. The flowers and wildlife on Auckland Islands had been amazingly diverse. I will never forget the sculptural forms of Stilbocarpa polaris (Macquarie Island cabbage), and the brilliant yellow Bulbinella had been everywhere and were at their peak on the walk yesterday. But I had not caught a sight of Pleurophyllum speciosum on the Auckland Islands, and although on the walk yesterday we found plenty of examples in the megaherb fields high above Perseverance Harbour, the season seemed late. They were just budding, and I felt a bitter disappointment, and a bit cheated, that I would miss out on the flowers at their peak.

Pleurophyllum speciosum

Pleurophyllum speciosum

But today as we trudged up Mt Honey, there they were, in all their glory. The colour of the clusters of flower heads is indeed a spectacular purple, but I was struck how great was the variety among plants – some were pale pink, others close to white, and others a deep mauve. Apparently they cross easily with other Pleurophyllum varieties such as Pleurophyllum criniferum and Pleurophyllum hookeri, which helps explain their range of colour and the varied form of flowers.

Pleurophyllum hookeri flowers

Pleurophyllum hookeri flowers

As I got close to them to absorb their showy perfection, I began to examine too their fabulous leaves. They are thick and leathery and heavily ribbed, like a bright green corduroy, which apparently creates a warmer micro-climate in each trough. The leaves are covered in long white hair, which provides protection from the fierce winds. The leaves span out from the centre in a circular fan, and they are huge – up to 10 centimetres in diameter. Just why they should be so large is not entirely clear. If it was a response to a cold climate one might expect the leaves, and indeed the whole plant, to be small, not large, as are many varieties here. More likely it is not the cold, because despite the latitude and weather, the actual temperatures on Campbell are not that chilly – an average of about 7 degrees through most of the year. The real issue is that the place does not get much sun (other than on our visit, of course!), so the large leaves function like giant solar panels designed to extract every possible element of energy from the sun when it does shine. Perhaps after yesterday’s glorious weather, the plants had received a boost, which is why they were flowering this morning. More likely the slopes of Mt Honey, facing west, were simply better protected and more exposed to the sun than the east-facing slopes which we walked up yesterday.

Pleurophyllum speciosum leaves

Pleurophyllum speciosum leaves

Whatever, they are captivating plants. I fell head-over-heels in love with them and took far too many photographs, spreadeagled on the ground in ecstasy. Alex Fergus, who was leading us on this ramble and suggested that they might well be originally an Antarctic species, has proposed that Pleurophyllum speciosum become New Zealand’s favourite native plant.  I wholeheartedly second this, so even if you have only seen them in photos, take my word, they beat the petals off pōhutukawa or edelweiss. I was hoping to convince you to vote for this remarkable plant, but to my distress I discovered that the voting closed on 29 December. Even if Pleurophyllum speciosum does not win, it has made my trip.

We reboarded our ship at 11.30 a.m., sailed at noon, and as we left the rain came down and heavy mist shrouded the hills of Perseverance Harbour. Campbell Island had returned to normality.

Another plant enthusiast on our subantarctic journey was Jessie Prebble, a botanist and Te Papa researcher whose PhD studies focus on native New Zealand forget-me-nots. You can read Jessie’s account of the trip here.