New Zealand nature: An introduction

With a third of its land protected in parks and reserves, New Zealand’s wilderness is always close at hand.

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

Geothermal activity

One of the most unusual aspects of New Zealand’s geography is the extensive geothermal activity. The North Island’s Volcanic Plateau is the best place to see geysers, boiling mud pools and steaming lakeshores.

Whakarewarewa is the traditional focus for tourists, as well as being the sacred ground of the Ngati Wahiao and Tuhourangi hapu (subtribes). On the South Island's West Coast, remnants of the Ice Age cascade from the Southern Alps to valley floors in rainforest that is only 300 metres above sea level. 

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 the south-west of the country is one of only two places in the world where fjords can be seen. These are the work of 500 million years of constant sculpting by the elements. Fiordland extends over 1.2 million hectares (three million acres) and has hundreds of lakes, mountain peaks, deep fiords and rainforests.

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

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.

Usually nocturnal, in recent times these rare flightless birds 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 observed up close in its natural habitat.

With intensive management both in the wild and on offshore island sanctuaries, the population of takahe, a giant flightless bird belonging to the rail family, thought for many years to be extinct, has been boosted to more than 300. 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 own habitat include joining a whale-watching expedition off the coast of Kaikoura or swimming with dolphins in several parts of the country.

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, 1882), Australia (Royal National Park, 1879) and Canada (Rocky Mountain Parks, 1885). New Zealand has 14 national parks and one of the highest rates of protected areas in the world.

UNESCO World Heritage sites are places recognised as having cultural or national significance. New Zealand's three World Heritage sites are Te Wahipounamu (South West New Zealand), Tongariro National Park and the Sub Antarctic Islands.

Te Wahipounamu incorporates Fiordland, Westland, Mount Aspiring and Mount Cook national parks. Two-thirds of their area is covered with southern beech and native conifers, some of them more than 800 years old. The kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, lives here, 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 criteria for cultural landscapes. The mountains at the heart of the park have cultural and religious significance for Māori 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, 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 Hooker's sea lion (the world’s rarest 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.

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

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

The rare flightless birds kiwi, takahe and kakapo are found only in New Zealand. Like many native birds, the kiwi’s survival in the wild is precarious, 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 their 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 possums. They destroy native trees and other plants by eating shoots and leaves, compete with native birds for food and kill many kiwi chicks. They also eat the eggs and young of other native birds.

Despite intensive programmes to get rid of them, there are still an estimated 30 million possums in New Zealand. They are controlled in priority areas but still persist in native forests and pine plantations throughout the country.

However, possums do have one redeeming feature – their luxuriant, mink-like fur. Production of possum fur products is 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 of international stature, such as Karen Walker.

Towering trees

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

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

But the most famous tree is the kauri, one of the largest species found anywhere in the world. A specimen in the Northland’s Waipoua forest has a girth of 13.7 metres (45 feet), stands 51.2 metres (168 feet) tall and is estimated to be up to 2,000 years old. The tree is easily accessible to visitors and is so revered that it has its own name, Tane Mahuta ("lord of the forest").

Māori approach

The Māori approach to the environment is holistic: everything both living and non-living is connected and interrelated. Central to this is the Māori 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 enlivens and regenerates the environment.

Mauri can be degraded through physical harm (such as destruction or pollution) and through failure to observe rites and rituals. Over the centuries, Māori have developed a set of customs and lore to conserve, manage and protect the environment and preserve mauri.Kaitiakitanga (guardianship) covers the duties and obligations of Māori to care for and observe the rituals for an area. This could be a geographical place, 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 a hapu (subtribe) or iwi (tribe) who are trained and recognised for these skills and abilities.