Grab a bargain? Is hoiho conservation worth the money?


The world’s biodiversity is at risk and we ignore this fact at our own peril.” New medias are reporting about the sixth mass extinction and many species are endangered. The debate is heated. However, what can we do to improve the situation?

Yellow-eyed penguins. Image from Chris Gin

Of course, deforestation and habitat destruction could be reduced and humans could live in harmony with nature. But things are not as easy as one might wish – population growth and higher standard of living are only two of the reasons that contribute to this situation. Often we are simultaneously destroying habitat that is essential for survival of one species while trying to conserve the same species by spending thousands of dollars on its conservation. The costs of species conservation efforts range from almost nothing up to millions of dollars. It is estimated that US$6 billion are invested annually in our planet´s biological diversity. But what is happening with the money and does it really improve the target species situation? How can we measure if the resources are allocated efficiently?

Adult hoiho (photo by spacebahr)

New Zealand is home to a high number of rare and endangered species and is therefore the target of many conservation efforts. Around NZ$106.5 million are spent annually for the management of natural heritage in New Zealand. However, which conservation treatment works best or provides best value for money? The problem is that many conservation programmes are not currently assessed in terms of the rate of return on investment that they provide.

UC Santa Barbara researcher Jonah Busch and Lincoln University economist Ross Cullen deals with the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of yellow-eyed penguin recovery. The difference between effectiveness and cost-effectiveness is simple: effectiveness of a conservation program is the growth of the population that is attributable to the program, measured per amount of treatment applied whereas cost-effectiveness describes the same but per dollar spent. Since penguins are adorable, flightless birds (yes, I´ve seen the yellow-eyed ones and they are awesome!) this paper attracted my interest.

How can it not be effective to conserve these heart-melting, endangered animals that only occur in a few sites in New Zealand and are the third largest penguins in the world?

Hoihos coming home (photo by Ben)

Three commonly used endangered species recovery treatments were compared in the study to identify the most effective and cost-effective methods: 1) trapping of introduced predators to reduce mortality, 2) revegetation to create cool, shaded conditions and enclosed nests to increase breeding success, and 3) intensive management which includes medical care, food supplements etc. to decrease the impacts of disease, starvation, and trauma.

Since nest counts are a reasonable proxy for total adult population size, Jonah Busch and Ross Cullen used nest count data that span 15 years and all 48 South Island nesting sites. Yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho, generally return to their nest area of birth to breed. In these areas they face quite a lot of threats. Chicks are at risk by predation of mustelids, cats and dogs on land. At sea all hoihos are vulnerable to sharks, sea lions and gill nets. This is also the reason for the mean juvenile mortality estimation at 52%. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) established a Hoiho Recovery Plan with the goal of increasing the nest number from 458 in 2000 to 1000 by 2025. It is not only DOC involved in the recovery but also conservationists such as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust and individual landowners.

Artificial shelter (photo by luvjnx)

Meanwhile a substantial nature tourism industry has established around viewing the hoiho. Apart from the recovery plans, hoihos attract the attention of thousands of visitors each year. From 2006-2007 an estimated 126,000 tourists viewed penguins (blue penguins and Fiordland crested penguins included) while in New Zealand. They report “feelings of wonder, improved mood, and increased environmental awareness” (which I can totally understand).

The increase in wildlife viewing as a part of the tourism industry, of course, attracts millions of dollar to the New Zealand economy. For example, on the Otago Peninsula where yellow-eyed penguins and royal albatrosses are the flagship species, wildlife viewing generates an estimated direct revenue of NZ$6.5 million annually. Thus, it is not only money that is spent on the conservation of the species but the species generates money for New Zealand’s economy in return.

Ross and Jonah´s study found that predator control and revegetation did not affect the population growth rate. Only intensive management led to an increase in site-level hoiho population growth rate. Intensive management increased the nest number from 424 in 2000 to 462 in 2006, 38 additional hoiho nests. This was an increase of 9% in nests compared to the number of nests without intensive management (only 5.4% growth rate). The main reason is that intensive management decreases adult mortality, a factor that growth rate is most sensitive to.

What are the costs for those 38 additional nests? They estimated that DOC paid NZ$2.6 million for labour and material or NZ$68,000 per additional nest. That initially sounds like a lot of money, but these costs should be considered in relation to the estimated several million dollars in revenue generated annually by penguin tourism and the non-market values, such as the ‘feel-good vibe’ that these penguins provide. Taking into account that penguin and albatross watching on the Otago Peninsula generates a direct revenue of NZ$6.5 million annually, costs of NZ$2.6 million over six years for 38 additional nests does not sound so high any longer.

The study shows that intensive management is the most effective approach because it increases the hoiho population growth rate. Nevertheless, effectiveness and cost-effectiveness depends on the details of predator control and habitat improvements. Knowing this, existing conservation treatments for yellow-eyed penguins could be adjusted to allocate the little available money most efficiently. The authors furthermore suggest to conduct more studies on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of different conservation methods. Funding is limited – try to make the most out of it.

 The author Julia Greulich is a postgraduate student in the Master of International Nature Conservation taught jointly at Lincoln University and University of Göttingen. She wrote this article as part of her assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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