Wilton Butterfly

Wilton Butterfly

Will Work for Scenery

It was innocent enough-she just wanted a little piece of home. New Zealand, with its two islands floating at the far corner of a map, could feel like a forgotten outpost. When people started immigrating to the country, they wondered if they would ever see their native lands again.

So when a lonely Scottish woman broke the earth around her doorstep to make a cradle for seedlings she had brought with her, it's possible to say that she watched and watered them protectively. In her diary found years later, she had written that she was worried her plant wouldn't survive.

The story is reminiscent of a time traveling horror novel-kill one butterfly and it alters the world's ecology in disastrous and permanent ways. The Scottish woman was planting gorse, now a common weed in New Zealand that has invaded the hills like a conquering army. Every year, New Zealand farmers spend massive amounts of time trying to rid the landscape of this nuisance, only to find the hearty yellow plant playing peek-a-boo from the other side of the hill.

But it wasn't just gorse that settled comfortably in New Zealand. The country is plagued by introduced species that have bullied the natural environment and nearly wiped out many native birds and insects. To say that New Zealand has a homeland security problem is an understatement. New Zealand's environment, renowned throughout the world for its unique beauty, is at serious risk of losing its biodiversity.

New Zealand's Department of Conservation spends thousands of dollars each year combating introduced species. But they can't, and don't, do it alone. In a country where "a good possum is a dead possum," New Zealanders almost consider it their patriotic duty to trap possums, or at least swerve for one darting across the road. Yet it's not only locals that are taking this problem personally. International volunteers have heard the S.O.S and have set out to help with the rescue mission.

With recent appearances in a number of Hollywood blockbusters, New Zealand is the new "it" starlet of travel destinations. But as people around the world are becoming increasingly more aware of environmental issues, they are looking to explore New Zealand and other countries with an eye toward sustainability, ecotourism and viewing environmental crises as a universal problem.

"Instead of using all the paper in the world, you're planting trees and replacing them," said Anna Evely, a resident of the UK who volunteered in New Zealand for one month. "Instead of taking from the country, you're actually giving something back. I felt like I left my mark by the trees I planted in New Zealand. As well as going somewhere and taking in all the beautiful scenery, I'm actually helping to make it more beautiful."

Eating New Zealand

There were, of course, other reasons besides homesickness that people introduced foreign species to New Zealand. In 1837, the possum was introduced from Australia to create a fur trade. Rabbits were shipped in for hunting and sport. Stoats were introduced to hunt the exploding rabbit population. And heather was planted because somebody just thought it was pretty.

Unfortunately, no one foresaw the problems this would create for a country that had developed like a child always kept inside-with no hardened immune system. New Zealand only has one native land mammal-two species of bat-so birds and plants evolved over time without the threat of possums, rabbits, stoats and invasive weeds. Their ability to defend themselves, as one environmental field worker put it, is "pathetic."

It's more tragic than just unfortunate that New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi (a flightless, awkward thing that never could see it coming), can hardly be found on the mainland. Like a refugee chased from its own home, the kiwi only lives safely on small islands where the predator populations have been eliminated.

And with it is going, though much more slowly, New Zealand's native bush, filled with rata and kowhai trees. Possums eat 21,000 tons of vegetation per day. If New Zealand were a crescent moon, it would be the possum that took the bite out of it.

Stoats, too, stalk the bush with no real natural competition or threats. While they'll hunt for rabbits and possums, there are other, much less adept creatures that make dinner an easy catch. As for the rabbits, well, we don't use the saying "breeding like rabbits" for nothing. In no uncertain terms, New Zealand has become a free-for-all for introduced species.

Given this, it can be fair to say that there are no work shortages for conservation volunteers. It's only a matter of time before volunteers set down their bags and are handed a spade.

"We need volunteers in conservation because the conservation challenges we face here are so huge," said Toby Malcolm, team leader of the Global Volunteer Network's New Zealand volunteer program. "New Zealand's got some amazing biodiversity and unique flora and fauna, but it faces a lot of challenges because of that. Those challenges are almost entirely human-induced, and they're not going to go away without intervention."

Trading Backpacks for Work Gloves

Helen Winser and James Irving quit their jobs in the UK and sold their house. They put their cats in a kennel. Days after they arrived in New Zealand, they were wading in a stream in knee-high rubbery boots to conduct an ecological health survey of the water and the fish. It was just the holiday they had in mind.

"I've always wanted to come to New Zealand," Winser said. "I heard so many horror stories about places being destroyed by tourism and I didn't want to come here and do that. I thought, if I could come here and volunteer, I could give something back rather than just take something from the environment."

Had Winser and Irving come to New Zealand strictly as tourists, there's not doubt they would have been impressed. But New Zealand's backpacker buses certainly don't stop to point out a signing Tui or explain the mind-boggling stages of growth of the Lancewood tree.

"We were able to experience things that tourists don't," Winser said. "Even when we did go to tourist places, we got to go off track and get right into the heart of the environment to see what it's really like."

Getting off the beaten track was also what Mandy Reina, a college student from Texas, had in mind when she signed up to volunteer in New Zealand.

"As a volunteer, I really could experience the 'soul' of New Zealand by working to preserve it," Reina said. "I saw parts of New Zealand that tourists never will by getting down on my hands and knees and planting trees that will be there for decades to come."

Because conservation volunteers usually work with local organizations and community members, they do get to meet New Zealanders in a different capacity. If volunteers have to turn down multiple offers for morning tea, it's just because New Zealanders are grateful to have the help.

"So many community members are very appreciative that we're here," Irving said. "They know it's not easy to come all this way and pay your own expenses."

The conservation staff that work with volunteers are often overwhelmed by these strangers' generosity.

"It is sometimes hard to find good in humanity," said Browyn Wall, who co-manages the Otari-Wilton Reserve restoration project. "But this reaffirms for me that there are people out there who care about other things than just themselves. It's inspiring."

The Value of a Volunteer

When Joseph Otari declared the forest he owned just outside of Wellington protected land, he was defying the times. There wasn't much that was spared during the early colonial land clearing days. His foresight would result in one of the most comprehensive collections of native New Zealand botanical specimens.

So when an area of severely degraded land teeming with invasive weeds began to rub elbows with the Otari-Wilton reserve, conservationists and the city council knew they had to work quickly to stop the damage from spreading.

But to restore the already degraded land with native species while maintaining the unspoiled reserve was a chore too big for even the most well-meaning conservationist. They decided, instead, to call upon volunteers.

Four years later, with overseas volunteers taking on much of the reforestation work, the land is experiencing a rebirth. To walk among the budding trees with their still snap-able trunks is to see New Zealand the way it may have looked as a toddler. Not only is the project heralded as a success in native bush restoration, but also in volunteers' ability to play a vital role in the conservation effort.

"In 10 years time, we want to have a complete forest canopy," said Jonathan Kennett, who works alongside Wall. "And we believe it is possible. This really is a place of hope for the rest of New Zealand. A forest is being developed here. Volunteers have been absolutely crucial. There's no way this would have succeeded without them. And they're not just working for New Zealand; they're working for the global environment."

It's not always this easy for conservation volunteers to see the impact their work makes. Often volunteers take on tedious, difficult tasks that give no thanks by way of visible progress. The work that volunteers are involved with in New Zealand includes weeding, planting, conducting seal and stream surveys, predator control (setting up stoat, possum and rat traps), reserve and park maintenance and making seed balls to help reforest areas with native plants.

"You might not be able to recognize the benefits immediately," said Catherine Walker, who volunteered in New Zealand for six weeks. "But you can think that in a few years time, the tree you planted will be that big. Even if it's just tedious tasks like making seed balls, it's great because it's groundbreaking research. No one's ever done this before. If they can work out what plants to plant here, it will save so much time and energy. Then they can focus their attention on what needs to be done, rather than just randomly throwing seeds around."

While volunteering may be unceremonious at times, there are also the moments when volunteers understand their value.

"I was able to meet a kiwi in the wild when I was working in the Coromandel," Winser said. "It really reinforced why we are here. The kiwi is the national symbol, and yet, it's in so much trouble. We were working some really hard days up there, so to get to grips with what we were actually doing made me think, yes, this is all worth it."

An Ecological Revolution

If the Kiwis and the kiwis have volunteers to thank for helping to safeguard New Zealand's biodiversity, so does the rest of the world. After all, it's volunteers that are trying to preserve Middle Earth for generations to come.

"I'm not stupid enough to think that I've saved the world from the work I've done here," Winser said. "But I think that I have made some small contribution to protecting the kiwi and replanting natural habitat to get the forest back. I'm quite proud of it, actually."

Although Winser and Irving would like to continue the work they're doing in New Zealand, they, like most other volunteers, have responsibilities calling them home-bills, mortgages, families, jobs. Their cats, for one, will be happy to see them.

And while volunteers are willing to set aside their own lives for the pursuit of saving the environment, they're also hoping they won't have to shoulder the burden alone.

"People are starting to wake up to global warming and other environmental problems," Walker said. "The mentality of the world is, 'Okay, we've got a slight problem here.' But there needs to be a connection between saying we need to do something and then actually doing it. You can't expect the world to be changed by volunteers, because dedicated volunteers need to live and eat too. We could all be out there earning a living being fat cat city brokers, but then we'll lose the world."

It's this environmental consciousness that has conservationists hoping that the work done by volunteers in New Zealand will result in action taken at home.

"I'd love to try and encourage an ecological revolution," Kennett said. "These volunteers are going home and bringing a new environmental awareness that if it can be done here, and it can done there."

If the old adage, "planting a seed," has any merit here, it won't just be in terms of the trees planted around the country.

"It's always worth remembering that although New Zealand seems like a clean, green country, environmental degradation is happening here too," Wall said. "But I think the message that volunteers can bring home with them is, it's never too late to start."

For more information on volunteering check out: http://www.volunteer.org.nz/

For more great articles on volunteering check out: http://globalvolunteernetwork.blogspot.com/

© 2000-2007 Global Volunteer Network

About the Author

Megan Taddy is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Journalism and International Studies who completed a media internship with Global Volunteer Network (GVN), an organisation that helps connect volunteers with communities in need.

http://www.volunteer.org.nz

Please ensure that all GVN content has an accreditation to the GVN website. You may not directly or indirectly change, edit, add to or produce summaries of the GVN content. A courtesy copy of your publication would be greatly appreciated.


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Help!

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