Think of New Zealand, and you think of stunning gorges and fiords, unique animal life and abundant flora. The nation’s natural heritage is both an indelible part of the country’s identity and its biggest tourist drawcard.

Headed by Lou Sanson as Director-General, the Department of Conservation NZ has the major responsibility of managing conservation land, which includes around a third of the entire country, along with preserving wildlife such as the iconic native birds kakapo and fairy tern, both listed as ‘nationally critical’.

Lou Sanson, Director-General of Department of Conservation NZ
Lou Sanson, Director-General of Department of Conservation NZ

Long term objectives

The Department has set itself the ultimate goal of making New Zealand the greatest living space on Earth. It has articulated a number of ambitious, long-term strategies to meet this objective, including the move to zero carbon emissions by 2050, encompassing plans to plant some one billion trees.

Greater engagement with New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori peoples is another of the Department’s long-term objectives. Most notably, this has included the government agreeing to co-manage Te Urewera (formerly a national park) and the Whanganui River. Both have now been given legal personality, a shift towards Maori conceptions of the environment as a living entity rather than property.

“It’s a new way of thinking about nature,” Lou says. “You don’t take from nature; you give back to it. We took a leadership role on the international stage with this and now other countries are following suit. It is about recognising the spiritual value the land has for our Indigenous people.”

Almost four million tourists visit the small country annually, with another million projected to join this number within the next five years. This has presented some problems. “Especially in southern South Island, we are having difficulty keeping up,” Lou confirms. Popular sites like Milford Sound and Fox Glacier are seeing between 5,000 and 6,000 people a day, presenting challenges in terms of queues, car park overflows and the broader potential for fragile sites to be damaged in the tourist rush.

Lou says the Department is pursuing the best approach to deal with the increasing numbers. “We’re trying for a more integrated approach between the local government and us. We’re looking at how best to organise the visitor experience and how to administer value rather than volume.”

Lou Sanson, Director-General of Department of Conservation NZ

Current projects

One of the more interesting projects the Department is undertaking is the conservation dogs initiative. This now involves 80 dogs. Some of the dogs have been trained to find predators like stoats and rats. Others help locate protected species, so that conservation staff can move them to safer areas.

The project began when Lou approached the CEO of Kiwibank. The company doesn’t do traditional sponsorship; it favours partnerships instead – and the collaboration with the Department has proven an excellent fit. “Kiwibank has a strong sense of community, so it’s been a perfect match,” Lou begins. “We are doubling our efforts with the conservation dogs, it’s been a real win-win. At the heart of being a New Zealander is looking after our magnificent natural environment and Kiwibank wanted to do its part to help with that.”

In addition to its corporate partnerships, the Department has been successful in enlisting members of the public to participate in its bid to rid New Zealand of predators by 2050. The value of this is twofold. First, it provides a critical mass of conservation workers, with almost 200,000 New Zealanders taking part. Second, it ties in with the Department’s inclusive approach. “We want to enable communities to help New Zealand’s conservation challenge,” Lou confirms. “How we channel energy into action is very much community driven.”

“We want the communities to own the conservation problems. How we channel energy into action is very much community driven.”

The Department has also embraced social media channels to get its messages out to the public. “We are looking at a new way to engage with tourists,” Lou confirms. “If we take a place like Franz Josef Glacier, we had nearly a million visitors, but only 150,000 come into the visitor centre, so we’re thinking in terms of channel strategy.”

The challenges in Lou’s role are truly large-scale and ongoing, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Part of being a New Zealander is growing up in this amazing natural environment. But we always have to manage the interfaces between communities who love their environment and international visitors who are coming to experience them. It’s a constant interplay.”