At first I thought it was a duck. It was swimming in the white swell of the broken waves on the beach near the southern tip of New Zealand. But while it swam like a duck, it definitely didn’t walk like a duck. As we watched it awkwardly flipped upright and waddled out of the sea and onto the sandy beach.Until you’ve seen a penguin in the wild, nothing quite prepares you for how odd they look. It was like a tiny human in a penguin suit. As if its arms and legs were constricted by the very efficient swimming suit that it had on over the top.
Our trip to New Zealand over Christmas really got me thinking about the future of conservation. The yellow-eyed penguin that we saw is classed as endangered but there’s a massive effort to increase numbers along New Zealand’s coast. Mainly this involves removal of invasive species and limiting human access to some extent.
We also visited the amazing Zealandia near Wellington. Walking in at dusk was one of the most magical experiences of my life. We’d parked the car, had a short briefing, walked through double animal proof gates and then we were surrounded by flocks of species of bird that I’d never seen before and there was little doubt that they ruled this roost. The valley is cut off from any invasive species by a fence all the way around. It was created almost by accident when the city authorities realised that they’d built a dam on an earthquake fault (oops) and so the valley was pretty much abandoned until some enlightened naturalists spotted an opportunity.
Some countries like New Zealand and Costa Rica are ahead of the curve but this process is something I think we’ll see much more of over the coming decades. Not just protection but reversal of human impact on nature and reintroduction of plants and creatures that may have been previously wiped out or put on the endangered list.
We’ll see old species reintroduced — perhaps even ones that are extinct but where some genetic information is preserved. While Jurassic Park was science fiction (and we don’t have much dino-DNA), the basic idea will come true within my lifetime I think. Stuart Brand has been popularising the idea of reintroducing the carrier pigeon to north America where it was once incredibly common. Others have talked about particularly reintroducing species that were wiped out by humans. Who knows maybe one day the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’ might die out itself.