Why I enjoyed the Rena disaster
Observations by GRAEME HILL
First published in Forest & Bird magazine, Nov 2012
First, as somebody once said, like execution, it concentrates the mind. Or more so, like inoculation, some brief pain and a little rash can be reassuring for the future. It was a salutary lesson that may well have been learned much harder by a massive oil tanker rather than a cargo vessel and we were reminded that extreme weather phenomena are not necessary for such calamities. Human stupidity can do the trick nicely.
Rena was front page news and the lead story every night. Oil-caked seabirds clambered all out-of-sorts in blue plastic tubs, obviously suffering. Pathetic, less fortunate ex-birds long since done for marked the high-water mark on the sand. Herds of media were dispatched in all haste and at some expense to “be there”. The scene seethed with volunteers and concerned citizens atop kikuyu dunes not knowing quite what to do but wanting to do something. It was heartening to see such a rally from citizenry and media in the face of a clear and present local environmental bummer, but I kept wondering, and hoping … When is it going to happen? When are they going to say it? Surely they must … but it never happened.
It is estimated that about 1500 birds died due to the Rena’s spewforth, and certainly untold other creatures were affected in some malignant way. To this day, when the Rena incident is mentioned, it is qualified in sombre and cautionary tones as “New Zealand’s largest environmental disaster”.
It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It’s not even close, and that was what I was waiting to hear.
Are you sitting down? Every year 26,000,000 native New Zealand forest birds perish to mammalian predators. It’s a number so crazy that it seems unbelievable, but don’t think for a second that some hysterical shrieking loon is picking numbers out of a hat and ramping things up for eco-shock purposes. This is a very conservative estimate, and it should be headline news.
John Innes of Landcare Research is not a man prone to hysteria. He’s pragmatic and rigorously scientific in approach, and his paper on the subject should be better known. Here’s the calculation. Forest covers 23 per cent, or 5.98 million hectares, of New Zealand. Assuming a miserly five native bird nests to each hectare in any nesting season, that’s 29.9 million nests.
Of those, 73 per cent, or 21.827 million nests, fail. At an average of two eggs per nest, that’s a total of 43.654 million chicks that fail to fly from the nest.
Predators are blamed for at least 61 per cent of those. That’s 26,628,940 chick and egg losses. This does not include the loss of mature birds to predation, introduced birds, or the much larger number of native birds that nest in parks, gardens and farms.
In a recent interview on the subject, I asked John why there isn’t more of an outcry and hence action. “I’m constantly struck at the lack of fuss …. I’m sure most people just don’t understand the magnitude of it,” he said. That’s why I enjoyed the Rena disaster. It showed how ordinary folk react when confronted with a clear environmental catastrophe, and it gave me hope about the response if the bigger picture is better known. The shame is that it isn’t.
It’s fair to assume that a large part of the public motivation during the Rena spill was to help rectify a single, directly human-caused affront to nature. Humans stepped up as an apology to the natural world for human folly. This is good and noble, but, frankly, the creatures don’t give a damn.
They care not for “sorry”, nor do they appreciate our motives. They and all our precious wildlife just need our action. Our inaction on introduced predators is also calculable.
Conservatively it is 17,333 times worse every year than a single reckless cargo ship’s crew.