Back in 2007, New Zealand promised to be the greenest country on Earth. Then Prime Minister Helen Clark of the Labour Party pledged to achieve a carbon-neutral and sustainable future for the Kiwi nation. A year later, the centre-right National Party won the general election and Clark was replaced by John Key, who is still in office. The lofty environmental vision of the Labour Party took a back seat to pro-business policies like the privatization of public services.

Green MP Eugenie Sage recently voiced her party’s criticism of New Zealand’s National-led government’s policies on conservation. Sage is quoted in the Waikato Times as saying that there is a biodiversity crisis in the country and that the Department of Conservation is underfunded.

That said, over the years New Zealand’s conservation efforts have perhaps been more comprehensive and effective than those of any other country. They’ve also faced stiff and unique challenges. New Zealand was isolated from other landmasses for 80 million years before the arrival of humans. Due to its geography and natural history, the island nation has a very large proportion of endemic species. For example, 71 percent of birds that existed on New Zealand before human colonization were not found elsewhere and over 80 percent of native flowering plants, ferns and conifers are endemic. Evolving in such isolation means a high vulnerability to invasive species.

Pic: Greg Bailey (Flickr CC)

A lack of predatory mammals resulted in some birds, like the emblematic kiwi and kakapo, to lose their ability (and need) to fly. In fact the only land mammals native to New Zealand are bats, which ironically can fly. The waters, however, are teeming with aquatic mammals — as well as some strange sea life. Take this red and black flabby whale fish that was discovered a couple of years ago in the deep seas to the east of the country. On land, weirdness abounds, such as the world’s largest insect — a creature similar to a grasshopper the size of an adult human hand.

Since the first people arrived on the islands between 700 and 800 years ago, half of the native vertebrate species have become extinct. As bad as that sounds, New Zealand is the nation with the shortest history of human habitation and considered to be the country that has experienced the least amount of human environmental impact.

Efforts at conservation in New Zealand include the establishment and restoration of island sanctuaries and attempts to eradicate destructive invasive species. A new national awards scheme seeks to stimulate more ideas that will benefit conservation. The World Wildlife Fund–New Zealand Conservation Innovation Awards will grant prize money to those who come up with novel ways of protecting and restoring the nation’s cherished biodiversity. The $90,000 NZ of allocated funds will be split into three grants of $25,000 and three runner-up awards of $5,000, each in three categories: product, project and research.

From Sun Media:

Common conservation activities – such as checking ground predator traps – can be time-consuming and back-breaking.

The scale of the task to protect and restore New Zealand’s special places and species means we need to develop smarter and more effective tools.

The grants for the best entries will provide much-needed capital to take these innovations to the next stage, and ultimately to deploy them to benefit our hard-working volunteer conservation army across the country.

—Lee Barry, Head of Conservation Projects for WWF New Zealand

New Zealand’s protection of its unique biodiversity is also a source of revenue in the form of its significant and growing eco-tourism industry. But will the country ultimately choose economic growth over conservation? Can it choose both? Will it ever become a truly sustainable nation?

New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula. Pic: arpent nourricier (Flickr CC)