"Biophilia, anyone?"
The Southland Times
By Amy Milne

Stewart Island's global significance has been highlighted in internationally acclaimed ecologist, historian, anthropologist, explorer, author and film-maker Michael Tobias' latest film and book. Southland Times reporter Amy Milne spent a day with one of the natural world's renaissance men.

A fly is buzzing at the window of the Church Hill Cafe on Stewart Island as Michael Tobias sits down for lunch.

He quickly acts to save it, cupping his hand around it and gently scooping it towards the window he's opened to set it free.

"Everything is precious," he says.

Everything. Within hours of meeting this man, he has me sniffing kiwi poo. On purpose.

While I'm yet to lay eyes on a kiwi, I can now say proudly that I have taken a good, exploratory whiff of its leavings.

If you take an island walk in the right company, it turns out there are plenty of earthy, pungent but inoffensive excretions to be investigated.

And to think that, just a short time beforehand, Dr Tobias seemed intimidating. The first thing that strikes you about the Los Angeles-based professor is his considerable height; he certainly towers over a 1.57m reporter. Towering, too, is his resume — American global ecologist, anthropologist, historian, explorer, author and film-maker.

But dressed casually, looking relaxed and ready with a warm greeting, he's quite disarmingly positive.

Dr Tobias says "biophilia" — a connection humans, plants and animals share — will save the world.

He reckons the message is spreading.

The president and chief executive of the Dancing Star Foundation he co-founded with wife Jane Gray Morrison, he's had a busy year promoting their latest film Hotspots and book Sanctuary.

He's keen to show me this film and within minutes of meeting we head for the Department of Conservation visitors' centre to view segments of Hotspots.

The epic documentary took 20 years of research and three years to film.

The message is immediately clear: the world is at a crisis point and the survival of thousands of endangered species hangs in the balance.

But Dr Tobias is optimistic.

"It's a luxury to get depressed," he says. "It's just not worth it. It doesn't accomplish anything.

"No matter how bad it is, or how good it is, you just keep the focus."

Focus. It's a mantra he lives by.

The author of 37 books — including several edited anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction — has this year published Sanctuary, which he and his wife wrote and photographed most of the images. He has written, directed and produced more than 100 films including television series, documentaries and dramas, most about environmental, cultural, social or scientific issues.

After viewing Hotspots we have lunch, along with our guest fly, at Church Hill Cafe and then head to Lee Bay for a walk along the predator-proof fence his foundation built three years ago.

He was last on Stewart Island 10 months ago and says he is pleased to be back to check out the progress of the 172ha predator-free enclosure and native planting restoration project his foundation established on the island three years ago. The foundation owns the land on the peninsula between Lee and Horseshoe Bays and built a 2.1km long by about 2m high fence to protect native birds and insects already there, as well as introduced ones.

Dr Tobias does not reveal what he and his wife's foundation has invested in Stewart Island. It's impossible to put a price on life, he says. The foundation's aim is for native species to breed in the protected area and spread out across the island. Results are already positive.

"Our data is showing huge gains," he says.

Dr Tobias believes Stewart Island and surrounding islands, such as Codfish (Whenua Hou), have the potential to lead the world in conservation. He attributes this to its small population, location and predictions it will be less affected by global warming than many other places.

The island's temperature is predicted to rise 0.8degC by 2010 as opposed to several degrees in other parts of New Zealand, he says.

The significance of Codfish Island (Whenua Hou) is highlighted in Hotspots.

Dr Tobias says all life forms fit together. When a species becomes extinct there is a domino effect which often leads to other species' extinction or to over population. Knowing where and when things are becoming unbalanced is crucial to bringing back species from the edge of extinction because something can be done about it, he says.

The kakapo and takehe are obvious examples. Species transfers to predator free islands have proved huge success stories in New Zealand.

The kakapos' sanctuary at Codfish Island is a very special place that has garnered international acclaim.

While New Zealand is a leader in conservation, about 50 percent of the country's native species are endangered, Dr Tobias says.

Because a third of the country is Department of Conservation land gives it some brownie points, as does the fact generations of New Zealanders have grown up conscious of environmental issues. It's hard not to find his passion for life contagious.

And while he has come up against those who disagree with his theories, it does not discourage him.

The film investigates critical areas around the world, populated by the largest number of unique plant, animal and insect species at risk of extinction.

It highlights the importance of people working together to identify risks to species and ways to save them from extinction.

"If all of us work together we can collaboratively make a profound difference _ we have to make that difference we don't have any more time." Hotspots premieres on the United States PBS Broadcasting channel KQED on November 5.


Dancing Star Foundation
• Established by Michael Tobias and wife Jane Gray Morrison, it is a California non-profit public benefit corporation devoted to animal welfare, international biodiversity conservation and environmental education.

• The foundation built a predator-proof fence between Lee and Horseshoe Bays on Stewart Island three years ago.

Michael Tobias
• Dr Tobias is an author, film and TV writer, director and producer whose work deals with environmental, historical, animal rights, ethical and philosophical themes.

• In 1996, he received the Courage of Conscience Award for his commitment to nature and non-violence.

• In 2004 he was awarded the Parabola Focus Award for his lifetime body of work.

• He obtained his PhD in the History of Consciousness at the University of California-Santa Cruz and has lectured widely.