LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

WHY THE SUR­VIVAL OF A KIWI CELEBRITY RE­LIES ON A FRIDGE FULL OF SNAILS IN HOKITIKA

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE -

More than a decade af­ter they were stored in fridges while their habi­tat was de­stroyed, one of New Zealand’s rarest species still has nowhere to go. It has fallen to tax­pay­ers to keep the species alive, af­ter a min­ing com­pany’s agree­ment to pay for the cap­tive pro­gramme lapsed. A gi­ant, car­niv­o­rous snail species now known as Pow­elliphanta au­gusta was dis­cov­ered in 2003, on a ridge­line near Westport. It oc­cu­pied a small area on the edge of Stock­ton mine, then run by state-owned miner Solid En­ergy. The species once lived wider on the plateau be­fore the area was mined, but was re­stricted to around 5ha when it was dis­cov­ered. Its only re­main­ing habi­tat had been tar­geted for min­ing, as it con­tained high-qual­ity coal used in the steel-in­dus­try. Af­ter a lengthy le­gal process, the mine com­pany was given a per­mit to move as many snails it could find. They were given to the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DOC) to keep in cap­tiv­ity. Solid En­ergy paid for the cap­tive pro­gramme for 10 years, while the mine would be re­ha­bil­i­tated so the snails could be re­turned. But when the 10-year pe­riod elapsed, in 2016, it was un­clear if the re­stored habi­tat would keep the species alive. DOC is now pay­ing around $50,000 each year to keep the pro­gramme go­ing un­til 2020, when its fu­ture will be re­con­sid­ered. The snails are kept in plas­tic con­tain­ers in two large cold-stores at the de­part­ment’s Hokitika of­fice. One hectare of orig­i­nal habi­tat re­mains on the edge of the mine, just within the bound­aries of the con­ser­va­tion es­tate. Snails have been rein­tro­duced there and else­where on the plateau, but the species has very spe­cific re­quire­ments that are dif­fi­cult to repli­cate. ‘‘The last lit­tle frag­ment [of habi­tat] that was on con­ser­va­tion land is still there, but it’s pre­car­i­ous be­cause it’s close to the mine,’’ said DOC sci­en­tist Kath Walker. ‘‘Tak­ing the top off the moun­tain means it’s not catch­ing as much cloud, so we don’t re­ally know if that lit­tle sliver of habi­tat that’s left is go­ing to main­tain the snails for­ever.’’ The fu­ture of the snails has been de­bated within DOC, in­ter­nal doc­u­ments ob­tained un­der the Of­fi­cial In­for­ma­tion Act re­veal. They show the pro­gramme was al­most moth­balled this year un­til ex­perts ar­gued that re­leas­ing the snails into the wild would put the species at risk of ex­tinc­tion. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is the south­ern morph of the species, of which there are around 150 left. Five of those south­ern morph snails were orig­i­nally taken from the plateau, and are more than 20 years old. ‘‘Early re­lease of all snails would al­most cer­tainly mean ex­tinc­tion/ swamp­ing of the south­ern sub­species and loss of ge­netic di­ver­sity within the species,’’ part of the ad­vice said. The de­part­ment is con­sid­er­ing al­ter­na­tive ways to fund the pro­gramme, in­clud­ing cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, the doc­u­ments show. The on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion has an­gered the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who vig­or­ously fought against the snails be­ing moved in the first place. The snail re­lo­ca­tion be­came a ma­jor con­flict in 2006, with groups such as For­est & Bird and Save Happy Val­ley turn­ing to court ac­tion to stop the snails be­ing moved. At the time, they warned of the pos­si­bil­ity the snails would never re­turn to the wild. ‘‘It’s a les­son we should never for­get,’’ said Debs Martin, of For­est & Bird. ‘‘We should never take that kind of risky ap­proach on a threat­ened species. ‘‘We never ac­cepted them go­ing into fridges at all, be­cause that’s not what you do with threat­ened species. You pro­tect their habi­tat where they are.’’

It’s a les­son we should never for­get. We should never take that kind of risky ap­proach on a threat­ened species. Debs Martin For­est & Bird

Pow­elliphanta au­gusta is kept in plas­tic con­tain­ers in two cold-stores at the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion’s Hokitika of­fice.

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