New Zealand has a strong history of conservation legislation, dating back nearly 150 years. Most conservation laws are administered by the Department of Conservation, the main government agency responsible for the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity. Yet, the true conservation successes in New Zealand have resulted from the hard work of exceptionally talented, focused and energetic individuals who have made the conservation of threatened species successful at the ground level. Richard Henry, back in the 1880s, started this trend by trying to save the kakapo by translocation to islands. The practical, experimental and field-based focus of conservation, which grew out of the old Wildlife Service in the 1960s and 1970s, has been a major factor in achieving conservation in this hotspot.
The country's first national park was established in 1887. Today, 74,000 km² of land (27.5 percent of the land area) is officially protected, including 3,345 protected areas in IUCN categories I to IV covering 22 percent of the land area. Most of these parks and larger reserves are in mountainous areas (such as the Southern Alps), while lowland habitats are not as well protected. However, a number of protected areas have been established especially to protected threatened species, including many of the offshore and outlying islands ranging from the large subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Island groups, Little Barrier (Hauturu), and Kapiti, to the warm temperate Kermadec Islands.
However, while formal habitat protection is important, active pest management is required if further extinctions are to be avoided, particularly given the threat of invasive species on the native fauna and flora. Conservation practitioners in New Zealand have earned an international reputation for their achievements in eradicating invasive mammals from islands and, more recently, controlling animal and plant pests at "mainland" sites. Twelve species of pest mammals and one predatory bird have been successfully eradicated from offshore and oceanic islands in the New Zealand region.
Significant recent advances have involved a new capability to eradicate rodents from much larger islands using aerial bait application techniques, and the use of more effective quarantine and contingency procedures to reduce the risks of further invasions. For example, Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) were recently eradicated from Campbell Island (112 km²), and this has opened the way for important species recovery and restoration programmes. The Department of Conservation is applying a strategy to develop capacity to eradicate different suites of invasive species from further islands and to refine procedures to minimize invasion risks. Important recent progress has also been made in controlling invasive species on the New Zealand "mainland" – sites not surrounded by water, where terrestrial pest invasion rates are higher than on remote islands – through the development of intensively managed, predator-free areas where threatened species can be re-established.