Why Zealandia is an entirely appropriate (but not very good) name for a wildlife sanctuary


A few months ago the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary decided to rebrand itself with the name “Zealandia”.  This provoked a flurry of letters to the editor in the Wellingtonian and the Dominion Post newspapers complaining the inappropriate the name is, and wondering what was wrong with the old name.  Most of these letters writers couldn’t understand why the sanctuary would rename itself  after a Catholic publication from 20 yrs ago, or after the outdated female representation of colonial New Zealand, or after a WWI and WWII troopship, and completely missed the point that Zealandia actually has a biological meaning.

Zealandia is the name of the continent containing present-day New Zealand that broke away from Gondwanaland 60-85 million years ago.  Zealandia spans the region that is occupied today by New Caledonia and Lord Howe Island in the north,  the subantarctic islands in the south, and the Chatham Islands to the East.  After breaking away from Gondwanaland the landmass slowly sank, so that today only around 10 percent of it is above sea level.   The prevailing view until recently was that the ancestors of most of our iconic flora and fauna were present on Zealandia when it broke away from Gondwanaland, and so evolved in isolation for 80 million years or so.  We now know this is unlikely to be the case for many species, but Zealandia is still a good metaphor for a wildlife sanctuary that aims to be a sort of ark for our iconic species (the “survivors of Zealandia“). 

So Zealandia is an entirely appropriate name for a wildlife sanctuary.  But somehow, whenever I see the phrase “Zealandia, the Karori Sanctuary Experience” it conjures up images of a theme park where people drive around in SUVs amongst herds of cloned dinosaurs…  And I suspect that we will all go on calling it the Karori wildlife sanctuary anyway.


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