New Zealand Ecotours - back

If you are interested in the natural environment, New Zealand has a lot to offer. Its unique history and geography have led to much of its flora and fauna becoming peculiar to the country.

Unique Flora and Fauna

80 percent of our trees, ferns and flowering plants are found only in New Zealand. Many of New Zealand's native animals are also unique. Apart from bats and marine mammals (such as seals), New Zealand has no native mammals! We do have lots of unique native fish, insects, birds, lizards and frogs. We have a number of flightless birds, including of course, the kiwi and more than a third of the 80 or so species of seabirds that breed in New Zealand are found nowhere else.

Seventy Million Years of Separation

The New Zealand landmass is a result of the collision of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. Geologists think that New Zealand broke away from the super continent, Gondwana, about 70 million years ago, before mammals had become established on the landmass. Once separated from other landmasses by oceans, only plants and animals dispersed by water or wind could reach New Zealand. Without mammalian competitors and predators, many of the species of birds and invertebrates in New Zealand evolved to occupy ecological niches that elsewhere in the world were occupied by mammals. As a result, many of these species have been extremely vulnerable to the arrival of new predators.

Ecological Variety

Another feature of New Zealand is its range of ecosystems, which sit in myriad landforms over a climatic span that extends from temperate coastal, through temperate rainforests to true alpine. The plate tectonics that shaped the landmass are continuing. You can see active volcanoes and may experience earthquakes.

Human Settlement

Man first came to New Zealand relatively recently and had a significant effect on the natural environment he found. Human colonization resulted in extinction of some of New Zealand's most unusual fauna. A number of unique species and ecosystems remain threatened or endangered.

The first settlement of New Zealand is thought to have taken place between 900 and 1200 AD. These settlers came from central Polynesia. Settlement patterns varied greatly throughout the country. The north, being warmer, was more heavily populated, and the coast was a preferred area, probably because of the abundance of kaimoana (seafood). By 1500, a distinctly Maori society had emerged. In the late 1700's, European explorers arrived in New Zealand, and by the early 1800's, European missionaries, sealers and whalers were well established.

Environmental Degradation

A period of exploitation followed with forests being felled for their timber and land being upturned in the search for gold. Eventually much of the country was cleared for agricultural use. Today about 10 to 15% of the total land area remains covered with native flora, from tall kauri and kohekohe forests to rainforest dominated by rimu, beech, tawa, matai and rata; ferns and flax; dune lands with their spinifex and pingao; alpine and subalpine herb fields; and scrub and tussock.

Department of Conservation (DOC)

Following the ravages wrought on the landscape by their ancestors, New Zealanders have developed a sensitivity to environmental issues. Of the country's land area, 30% is now in national parks or protected areas, administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The national parks offer many recreation facilities as well as wonderful scenery.

Visitors will find that many of the attractions they want to experience are in these DOC administered areas. You may also want to use DOC campsites.

DOC is an important player in the fight against introduced species, such as the possums and ferrets that threaten native plants and birds, and in the struggle to preserve species on the brink of extinction. A number of offshore islands, such as Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti are reserves free of introduced predators.(rats, cats, stoats, ferrets, pigs and dogs).

Several mainland 'islands' have been created with the objective of establishing an environment in which endangered species can survive. Pests are kept at bay by trapping and other means. There are now several non-DOC initiative with similar aims; the first was Wellington's Karori Sanctuary.


DNA genetics has identified 5 species of the strange nocturnal bird which has become New Zealand's emblem. A national recovery plan is in place to revive Kiwi numbers. The bird's lifestyle makes it difficult to find but in both the North and South Island there are kiwi houses where you can see kiwis in captivity.


Kauri is among the world's mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 metres tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 metres. These trees covered much of the top half of the North Island when the first people arrived. In the 19th century the arrival of European settlers saw the decimation of these magnificent forests. Sailors quickly realised the trunks of young kauri were ideal for ships' masts and spars. Later settlers discovered the mature trees yielded sawn timber of unsurpassed quality for building.

The gum, too, became essential in the manufacture of varnishes.

Today, 80, 000 hectares of kauri forests remain. The largest remaining kauri tree in the country, known as Tane Mahuta, stands in the forests of Waipoua, Northland.

These forests are vitally important refuges for threatened wildlife, such as the North Island kokako and North Island brown kiwi.

Sea Birds

The more than 330 islands of New Zealand provide breeding and nesting sites for huge numbers of sea birds, including gulls, terns, penguins, shags, gannets and albatrosses. Seabird densities on the subantarctic islands are among the highest in the world. The numerous important locations for observing birds include Miranda on the Firth of Thames, an important wintering ground for thousands of Arctic nesting shorebirds, and Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island.


Albatrosses are the world's largest seabirds. They normally breed on remote islands and spend at least 85 percent of their lives at sea, well away from land and human view. Renowned ocean wanderers, they travel vast distances from their breeding grounds to feed. The royal albatross, for example, with its massive wingspan of up to 3.3 metres flies an estimated 190,000 kilometres a year. The northern royal albatross breeds on the Chatham Islands and at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula, one of only two places in the world where albatrosses breed on the mainland.

Other Sea Life

Dolphins are common in the Hauraki Gulf whilst penguins, including the rare yellow-eyed penguin (Hoihoi), whales, and dolphins may be seen at a number of South Island coastal locations.

Fiordland has a globally unique marine environment, with many species found only in this area. These include protected black and red corals, which are found in Fiordland at shallow depths because of the unique combination of high mountains, high rainfall and rainforest. Moves have been made to protect special zones known as China Shops. These are small areas,outstanding for the abundance and/or diversity of animal or mixed animal and plant communities.