Beauty and the Furry Little Beasts: When It Comes to Natural Wonders, New Zealand Seems to Have It All: Mountains, Forests, Volcanoes, Glaciers, Lakes, Rivers and a Whole Host of Unusual Wildlife. but, as Roger Bray Discovers, beneath All This Spectacular Beauty, All Is Not Well

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Take a walk in the woods with a New Zealander and chances are you'll soon hear a common lament. It starts with a statistic that the entire population seems programmed to trot out: every night, 70 million brushtail possums eat their body weight in greenery. That works out at an estimated 20,000 tonnes of vegetation every 24 hours. These furry little beasts also carry bovine tuberculosis, which has affected the dairy, beef and deer industries, and despite being ostensibly vegetarians, they also eat birds' eggs and chicks.

Small wonder then that New Zealanders, who aren't, by nature, unkind to animals, tend to spit blood at the mere mention of this superficially endearing nocturnal creature. "If you see one on the road, swerve to hit it--not miss it," urged a bus driver I met in the North Island's Tongariro National Park.

And as you're taking that walk in the woods, you're pretty much guaranteed to see the results of its voracious appetite. Your eyes light on the trunk of a mighty red cedar, perhaps, or a rimu, that might have already reached maturity when Captain Cook arrived in 1770. When you raise them towards the canopy, you realise that the tree is dead.

The possum, a native of Australia, was introduced into New Zealand during the 1830s as a source of fur, and thrived due to a lack of predators. Its impact on the country's natural environment, along with that of numerous other alien imports, is one of three recurrent themes for the traveller exploring New Zealand. The others are the continuing land disputes between the Maori and later settlers, and the sheer power of nature.

Clean and green

New Zealand can easily be seen as a microcosm of all the world's natural wonders. As anyone who's seen the Lord of the Rings films can attest, it's blessed with a cornucopia of spectacular scenery, from majestic snow-capped mountain ranges, awesome glaciers, active volcanoes and deep caves to primeval forests and pristine white-sand beaches.

Made up of two main islands--imaginatively named the North and South islands--it has a total landmass of 268,680 square kilometres but a population of just four million. The two main islands are surprisingly different in character. The North enjoys a slightly warmer climate and is best known for the volcanic landscapes of Tongariro National Park, Taranaki, Rotorua and Lake Taupo. It also has the best of the beaches and a vibrant Maori culture. The South Island is generally greener and has the impressive Southern Alps and Fiordland's achingly gorgeous waterways.

With all of these natural wonders, it's unsurprising that New Zealand maintains a clean, green image. But it's an image that is under attack from foreign invaders.

Unwelcome guests

New Zealand is one of the world's most isolated landmasses. Its closest neighbour, Australia, is 1,600 kilometres to the west. That isolation has a long history--the islands separated from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana more than 80 million years ago. As in so many of the world's other isolated island groups, its flora and fauna headed off down unusual evolutionary pathways. And, consequently, the islands also have a high level of endemism: about 80 per cent of New Zealand's plants, all 80 or so reptiles, the four remaining frogs and both remaining species of bat are found nowhere else.

With no large native mammals, birds dominate the fauna, and the lack of mammalian predators meant that it was safe for them to stay on the ground. At the time of human arrival, New Zealand was home to more than 20 species of flightless bird (not including penguins), ranging in size from the tiny Stephens Island wren--the only flightless and the smallest songbird in the world--to the moa, at more than two metres in height, the world's largest bird. There were also flightless ducks, a flightless parrot and, of course, the iconic kiwis. …