Impacts of the Maori on the environment

Much of the material on this site focuses on the impacts of European settlers on the New Zealand environment. But of course the environment was neither untouched nor pristine when organised European settlement began in the 19th century. As can be seen in the forest cover diagrams in the earlier post, Destruction of our forests over time, the Maori also had a significant impact on New Zealand’s forests, albeit over a much longer period of time (centuries as opposed to years). Between the beginning of Polynesian settlement in New Zealand around the fourteenth century and the beginning of organised European colonisation in the nineteenth century, it is estimated that forest cover was reduced by about half, largely through fire.

It is believed that virtually all the forests of the eastern South Island were destroyed during a relatively brief period of burning from AD 1300 – 1450, leaving only isolated areas of forest. Forest was also burnt out in the lower east coast of the North Island and in the Hawke’s Bay. In the more northern regions, it is believed that forested areas were subjected to periodic localised burning to maintain fernlands (which were an important source of food).

Maori also had a significant impact on the archipelago’s fauna: nearly forty species of birds, a bat, three to five species of frogs and numerous lizard taxa became extinct during the pre-European Maori era. Factors leading to the extinction of these species were direct hunting, predation by or competition with introduced dogs and rats, human disturbance of nesting sites, and habitat destruction (mainly through burning). Bird species in particular were extremely vulnerable to any kind of human disturbance owing to their flightlessness, low breeding rates and ground-nesting habits.

[Source: “A fragile plenty – pre-European Maori and the New Zealand Environment”, by Atholl Anderson, in Environmental Histories of New Zealand].

[Figure above right: A giant Haast’s Eagle attacking moa – both species became extinct in the pre-European Maori era]

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