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New Zealand nature: An introduction

by Tourism New Zealand on 09 September 2015, 14:09PM

With a third of the country protected in parks and reserves, New Zealand’s wilderness is always close.

Recognised for its clean, green environment, New Zealand is a combination of beautiful landscapes; from vast mountain chains to grand volcanoes, sweeping coasts and deep fiords, lush rainforests, grassy plains, rich thermal areas and expansive beaches.

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Geothermal activity

One of the more unique aspects of New Zealand’s geography is the extensive geothermal activity. The North Island’s central volcanic plateau is the best place to see geysers, boiling mud pools and steaming lake edges.

Whakarewarewa is the traditional focal point for tourists and is also the sacred ground of the Ngati Wahiao and Tuhourangi hapu (subtribes).On the West Coast of the South Island, remnants of the ice age cascade from the Southern Alps to valley floors in rainforest just 300 metres above sea level.

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This combination of ice and temperate rainforest is a unique feature of New Zealand’s glacier country, and is an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. Franz Josef glacier in Westland National Park is New Zealand’s steepest and fastest moving glacier.

Fiordland in South West New Zealand is one of only two places in the world where fiords can be seen.

It is the work of 500 million years of constant sculpting by the elements. Fiordland stretches over 1.2 million hectares (three million acres) and comprises hundreds of lakes, mountain peaks, deep fiords and rainforests.

The jewel in Fiordland’s crown is Milford Sound, described by Rudyard Kipling as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

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Curious  wildlife

The wilderness of Stewart Island offers one of the best chances to spot New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi, in its natural habitat.

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Normally nocturnal, these rare flightless birds recently seem to have given up daytime sleeping in favour of pursuing more food! Further north, in Dunedin, the world’s rarest penguin - the yellow-eyed penguin - can be viewed in its natural habitat from trenches just inches away.

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With intensive management both in the wild and on offshore island sanctuaries, the population of takahe, a giant flightless rail, has been boosted in recent years to around 250. These birds can easily be seen on the island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.

Other opportunities to observe animals in their natural habitat include joining a whale watching expedition off the coast of Kaikoura or swimming with dolphins in various parts of the country.

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World Heritage sites

New Zealand was the fourth country in the world to establish a national park (Tongariro in 1887) following in the footsteps of the United States (Yellowstone National Park in 1882), Australia (Royal National Park, 1879) and Canada (Rocky Mountain Parks, 1885).Today New Zealand has 14 national parks and one of the highest rates of protected areas in the world.

UNESCO World Heritage sites are places with cultural or national significance, as decreed by the World Heritage Committee. New Zealand has three World Heritage sites: Te Wahipounamu (South West New Zealand), Tongariro National Park and the Sub Antarctic Islands.

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Te Wahipounamu incorporates Fiordland, Westland, Mount Aspiring and Mount Cook national parks.

Two-thirds of the area is covered with southern beech and native conifers, some of which are more than 800 years old. The kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, lives in the area, as does the rare takahe.

In 1993 Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island, became the first site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List under the revised cultural criteria describing cultural landscapes.

The mountains at the heart of the park have cultural and religious significance for Maori and symbolise the spiritual links between the community and its environment. New Zealand’s Sub Antarctic Islands are the Auckland, Snares, Campbell, Bounty and Antipodes Islands, situated south-east of New Zealand.

The islands have huge numbers and varieties of wildlife, including birds, plants and invertebrates found nowhere else in the world.

Unique flora and fauna

Some of the country’s flora and fauna are among the rarest in the world or are unique to New Zealand.

The Hector’s dolphin (the world’s smallest marine dolphin) and the world’s rarest sea lion, the Hooker’s sea lion, are only found in New Zealand waters.

The oldest living genus of reptile is the native tuatara, found only in New Zealand. Of the many representatives of the order Sphenodontia that lived during the age of the dinosaurs some 200 million years ago, tuatara are the only remaining species.

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New Zealand is home to fierce-looking but harmless insects known as weta. They look like a cross between crickets and grasshoppers, to whom they are related, but are larger and usually brown.

The biggest species of weta - weta punga, or the giant weta - is found on Little Barrier Island and grows to the size of a small bird. Many weta are protected, and are almost unchanged from their ancestors of 190 million years ago.

The rare flightless kiwi, takahe and kakapo birds are unique to New Zealand. Like many native birds, the kiwi’s survival in the wild is tenuous, with predators such as feral possums, rats, cats and stoats impacting dramatically on numbers.

The Department of Conservation has implemented a kiwi recovery programme that has seen bird numbers recover and begin to increase in areas with intensive pest control.

One of the biggest threats to native flora and fauna in New Zealand is the possum. They destroy native trees and other plants by eating shoots and leaves, compete with native birds for food and are responsible for killing many kiwi chicks.

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They also eat the eggs and young of other native birds. Despite intensive eradication programmes, the possum population is estimated to be about 30 million.

They are controlled in priority areas but still persist in native forests and pine plantations throughout New Zealand. However, they do have one redeeming feature - their luxuriant, mink-like fur.

Production of possum fur products is rapidly becoming a lucrative industry. Numerous companies use the fur to produce bedspreads, jackets, socks and hats, and it has featured in the designs of New Zealand fashion designers such as Karen Walker.

Towering trees

Walking through native rainforest in New Zealand is a unique experience. Above is a leafy, green canopy, at eye level a mass of ferns, tree ferns, vines and palms, and underfoot a carpet of delicate mosses and lichens.

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The tallest tree, known by its Maori name kahikatea, reaches 60 metres and is a type of conifer called a podocarp.

But the most famous tree is the kauri, one of the largest found anywhere in the world. A specimen in the North Island’s Waipoua forest has a girth of 13.7 metres, stands 51.2 metres tall and is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. The tree is easily accessible to visitors and is so revered it has its own name, Tane Mahuta (Lord of the forest).

Maori approach

The Maori approach to the environment is holistic: everything both animate and inanimate is inextricably connected and interrelated. Central to this is the Maori world-view built around a cosmology that links all parts of the earth and nature in a family. All are bound together by whakapapa (genealogy).

At the heart of whakapapa is mauri. Mauri is the life force that exists in all things and binds the world together; it is the dynamic force that enlivens and regenerates the environment.

Mauri can be degraded through physical harm (such as destruction or pollution) and through failure to observe appropriate rites and rituals. Over the centuries, Maori have developed a set of customs and lore to conserve, manage and protect the environment and in effect preserve mauri.

The concept of kaitiakitanga or guardianship embodies the duties and obligations Maori have to care for and observe the rituals appropriate to the area concerned.

This could be a geographical area, an area of activity (such as the marae, or meeting place) or taonga (sacred things) such as te reo (language) or waiata (song). It is managed by people within the hapu (subtribe) or iwi (tribe) who are trained and recognised for their skills and abilities.

For more information on New Zealand and to book your next trip there click here.


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