Review: David Young, Whio: Saving New Zealand’s Blue Duck, Craig Potton Publishers, Nelson, 2006, 152 pp., ISBN 978 1 877333 46 0.

Charles Dawson

There’s plenty for everyone in Whio. People engaged in conservation projects directly, ecologists, those working on conservation policy or history, Treaty issues or ornithology will find this book rewarding, while the general reader will marvel at how far New Zealand scientists have come in their understanding of bird life, habitat and care in the last three decades. As in Young’s excellent recent history of conservation Our Islands, Ourselves, Whio is both accessible and rigorous, moving from the source material to contextualise, probe and (no easy task) elucidate current conservation practice and policy, and bring stories of achievement and possibility to life. Whio’s publication points to a rising interest in species recovery; the book was sponsored to catch this and raise the profile of this threatened species (though Young points out his views are his ands not the sponsors). In Whio he turns our gaze to a species facing extinction by stealth.

The blue duck itself flies low on the radar of public consciousness. Its first public foray was the Planning Tribunal’s 1990 decision on the Whanganui River’s flow level:

for the first time the whio was given a level of exposure as a taonga (treasure) of the river that no other case had achieved. So at last, the cryptic blue duck paddled into public view as a crucial indicator species, an expression of the health of our rivers’ (64).

This book is about far more than the whio alone. In crafting a ‘social history’ of the whio, Young demonstrates how ecological projects require an equally holistic approach across all elements, from management and political support in Wellington, to good relationships with Mäori, farmers, hunters, power companies and local government. There is a lot of collaboration required: ‘coordination of the captive-rearing programme embraces some 16 different agencies other than DoC [Department of Conservation]’ (93). One of the book’s strengths is its revealing engagement with the myriad of workers and researchers captivated by whio. We read of translocation efforts in Taranaki and Kahurangi National Parks, of DOC workers’ dread at the emails over coming weeks that mark another loss to stoats, and the advances in tracking, monitoring and ecosystem assessment over the last 30 years, as well as the support for whio recovery and protection from hunters in Fiordland and elsewhere.

If the whio skimmed into public consciousness in a Planning Tribunal decision about Whanganui River levels, local Mäori and conservation issues and the generation of electric power, then Young’s chapter on that case and its aftermath is required reading for anyone involved in the Treaty sector for an account of how the judicial or political imprimatur lives on after its release.

An indicator species, the whio is one marker of how ‘second-tier’ endangered species are also under extreme threat. The book is a testament to the many workers and volunteers who have fought against mustelid and mega-project, battling the whio’s slide into extinction. This work (and the blasted stoats) has helped prompt a shift from the single-species approach to ‘a recovery programme that aims to save entire communities of animals and plants within a particular area’ (132).

Paul Jansen suggests the aim of much of this tireless work should be a level of population that would survive 20 years without any management intervention (132). There is still a long way to go. This attractive, compelling and sobering study of whio should sit on the bookshelf of anyone interested in that journey. As Young notes,

The blue duck’s call will come to signify entire and intact communities of insects, plants and other birds living as they have always lived in an ecological relationship. For the whio’s crisis is emblematic of what ails not only its habitat but also the way we live – blindly and unsustainably – in these islands (138).