Te Wahipounamu (South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area), New Zealand

Geographical Location

Wahipounamu, (166°26'-170°40'E, 43°00'-46°30'S)is a World Heritage Site located in the south-west of South Island, New Zealand, extending 40-90 kilometers (km) inland from a 450 km length of the western coast. The seaward boundary is generally the mean high water mark.

Date and History of Establishment

caption Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand. (Source: UNESCO World Heritage)

A major preservation initiative was the reservation, for national park purposes, of 950,000 hectares (ha) of Fiordland in 1904. The name was subsequently changed to Fiordland National Park when it was gazetted under national parks legislation in 1955. Mount Cook and Westland National Parks were gazetted in 1953 and 1960, respectively, and Mount Aspiring National Park in 1964. Mount Aspiring National Park has almost doubled in size since the mid-1970s; 24,285 ha were added in 1989; and another 41,630 ha in 1990 (Red Mountain Range and Olivine Range). The upper Karangarua Valley was added to Westland National Park in 1983. Much of the land not included within national park is protected as conservation land under the Conservation Act, or reserves under the Reserves Act. Te Wahipounamu was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1990. The site comprises one contiguous unit, except for a number of smaller outlying areas (separate data sheets describing the four national parks are available). The protected areas included in the nomination are:

Gazettal Date
Area (ha)
IUCN Category
National Park
1. Fiordland 1952 1,257,000 II
2. Mount Aspiring 1964 355,543 II
3. Mount Cook 1953 69,923 II
4. Westland 1960 117,547 II
Nature Reserve
5. Waitangiroto 1957/1976/1986 1,230 Ia
6. Wilderness 1964/1980 88 Ia
Scientific Reserve
7. Gorge Hill Pending 2,188 III
8. Ramparts 1972 4.5 Ia
9. Te Anau 1973 0.02 Ia
Scenic Reserve
10. Jacobs River 1973 120 IV
11. Karangarua Bridge 1950/1977 15 IV
12. Lake Moeraki 1964 243 III
13. Lake Paringa 1950 396 III
14. Lake Rotokino 1930 295 III
15. Mahitahi 1952/1981 22 IV
16. Okuru 1981 46 IV
17. Paringa Bridge 1950/1968 93 IV
18. Rohutu 1911/1974 491 IV
19. Saltwater Lagoon 1928/1981 1,300 IV
20. The Exile 1905 56 IV
21. Toarona Creek 1978 97 IV
22. Waitangitaona 1961 118 IV
Private Protected Land
23. Chapman Reserve 1989 20 IV
Wildlife Management Reserve
24. Diamond Lake 1970 283 IV
25. Lake Pratt 1978 25 IV
26. Okarito Lagoon 1983 165 IV
27. White Heron Lagoon 1984 172 IV
Ecological Area
28. Diggers Ridge 1982 4,235 Ia
29. Lillburn 1982 2,670 Ia
30. Saltwater Lagoon 1981/1984/1985 1,483 Ia
31. Oroko Swamp 1981 173 Ia
32. Waikoau 1982 2,800 Ia
National Park Special Areas
33. Secretary Island 1973 8,890 Ia
34. Sinbad Gully Stream 1974 2,160 Ia
35. Solander Island 1973 120 Ia
36. Takahe Fiordland 1953 177,252 Ia
37. Slip Stream 1973 18,000 Ia
National Park Wilderness Areas
38. Glaisnock 1974 124,800 Ib
39. Pembroke 1974 18,000 Ib
Wilderness Area (Conservation Land)
40. Hooker/Landsborough 1990 41,000 I

There are two large wilderness areas within the World Heritage Area: Glaisnock (124,800 ha) in northern Fiordland National Park and Hooker/Landsborough (41,000 ha) in South Westland. The Mount Aspiring National Park management plan indicates an intent to gazette approximately 50,000 ha of the western part of the park as the Olivine Wilderness Area and most of the vast south-western corner of Fiordland National Park is managed as a de facto wilderness area.


2,600,000 ha.

Land Tenure

The Crown. A small block of land at Martins Bay is owned by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and there are a small number of private enclaves within the nominated area. Virtually all the land is currently the subject of a claim by the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board before the Waitangi tribunal. The outcome of the claim will not affect future protection, as the Ngai Tahu are committed to maintaining the protected status of the lands involved.


Sea level to 3,764 meters (m) (Mount Cook).

Physical Features

caption Te Wahipounamu, New Zealand. (Source: Australian Heritage Directory)

South-west New Zealand (Te Wahipounamu) lies across the boundary between the eastern, Pacific plate and the Indo-Australian plate to the west and is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. The mountainous character of the area results from tectonic movement over the last five million years. A detailed history of uplift over almost a million years is recorded in a flight of 13 or more marine terraces on the south coast of Fiordland and the contiguous Waitutu area. The terraces were formed by marine erosion at the coast, but are now found at up to 1,000 m above sea level. The uplifted mountains have been very deeply excavated by glaciers, resulting in high local relief. Glaciers are an important feature of the nominated area, especially in the vicinity of Westland and Mount Cook national parks, which contain 28 of the 29 New Zealand peaks above 3,000 m. While the basic pattern of landform was set during the Pleistocene glaciations, there have been substantial post-glacial changes. These are especially marked in South Westland and the Southern Alps. Erosion in the mountains remains very rapid, especially in the zone of high rainfall (and most rapid uplift) west of the Main Divide. Intense gullying, serrated ridges, and major and minor rockfalls are characteristic of this zone. Post-glacial modification of the Fiordland topography is very much less than in the Southern Alps, and the glacial landforms are almost entirely intact. Full exposure to Southern Ocean swells has produced a dramatic "iron-bound" coast on basement rocks, with irregular high cliffs and many offshore rocks and stacks. Intertidal rock platforms extending from the foot of low cliffs characterize the Waitutu Conservation Area coast and parts of the adjacent south coast of Fiordland. The rocks of Fiordland are generally crystalline, dominated by a wide range of plutonic types such as granite and diorite, and metamorphic gneisses. In the extreme south-west there are unmetamorphosed sedimentary rocks. In the north-east, the Fiordland block abuts a set of north-south trending volcanic and sedimentary rocks of mainly Permian age. The Dun Mountain Ophiolite Belt is the key unit, comprising a slice of oceanic crust and the underlying mantle. Eastwards, a Permian terrane of greywacke sandstone becomes progressively more highly metamorphosed to become schist which forms the Southern Alps contained within Mount Aspiring National Park. This band of schist narrows as it extends further north-east, paralleling the Alpine Fault on its south-eastern side. On its eastern margin in Mount Cook National Park, the schist gradually changes back into Permian-Triassic greywacke of a separate terrain.

West of the Alpine Fault, the rocks of South Westland consist of a basement of Ordovician greywacke with some high temperature metamorphic rocks and granites, and minor areas of younger Cretaceous and Tertiary sedimentary rocks along the coast. Severely eroded by Pleistocene glaciers, these now generally form blocks of rugged hill country or isolated hills standing above post-glacial alluvium and lagoon-infilling sediments. Pleistocene moraines and outwash form extensive areas of subdued hill country and low plateaux.


The Fiordland massif and the Southern Alps create a barrier to the prevailing westerly winds, causing rain which is often heavy and prolonged. East of the mountains air descends as a typical föhn wind creating warm, often violent, north-west winds. From 3,000-5,000 millimeters (mm) on the coastal lowlands, annual rainfall increases inland, and with altitude, to exceed 10,000 mm on the western flank of the Southern Alps where much of it falls as snow. West of the mountains, rain is distributed uniformly through the year. East of the mountains, the annual rainfall is as low as 1,000 mm. The ocean has a strong moderating influence on temperature, especially in the west and south. The result is a cool, temperate climate with small annual and diurnal ranges. East of the divide, summer temperatures are slightly higher than in the west at equivalent altitudes, and winters are more severe.


The diversity of natural vegetation is distributed along a number of pronounced environmental gradients, including: altitudinal sequences from permanent ice in the high mountains to sea level or inter-montane basins; rainfall/temperature gradients from west-to-east, resulting in a compressed transect from rainforest to grassland; a north-south gradient covering three degrees of latitude; pronounced ecotones between open wetlands, grasslands, shrublands and forest communities; and distinct sequences of vegetation and soils developed on landforms of different ages.

A floristically rich alpine vegetation of shrubs, tussocks and herbs extends along the summits of the mountains, from about 1,000 m in altitude above the tree line to the permanent snowline. Chionochloa snow tussocks (up to 1 m tall) dominate the alpine grasslands and shelter mountain daisies Celmisia sp., buttercups Ranunculus sp., foxgloves Ourisia, lilies Astelia and many other alpine herbs. Most famous of these is Ranunculus lyallii, the largest buttercup in the world. South of the Paringa River, the lower limit of the alpine vegetation is usually marked by an abrupt tree line. Silver beech Nothofagus menziesii usually forms the canopy at the tree line, seen as a very distinct line running horizontally at about 1,000 m. North of the Mahitahi River, the beech species are absent for a distance of some 160 kilometers (km), the so-called 'beech gap' which is a major biogeographic feature of New Zealand's vegetation. At warmer lower altitudes, the rain forest is dominated by dense stands of tall podocarps. In all, 14 podocarp species occur in the South-West (10 of them being forest trees) and their distribution is strongly controlled by landform, soil and climatic factors. The wetter, milder west is characterized by luxuriant rain forest and wetlands; the drier, more continental east (with colder winters and warmer summers) has more open forest (generally mountain beech), shrublands and short tussock grasslands.

The South-West contains the most extensive and least modified natural freshwater wetlands in New Zealand. Sizeable open wetlands, including high fertility swamps and low fertility peat bogs, are a particular feature of the South Westland coastal plain. The best-known vegetation chronosequences are those on glacial landforms where the ages of outwash, terrace and higher piedmont surfaces are known. Raw gravels are colonized by mats of lichen Rhacomitrium; the youngest glacial moraines - some only 20 years old - have nitrogen-fixing shrubs and grasses and herbs growing on a weakly-developed soil; on moraines aged 150 years rata-kamahi forests up to 20 m high flourish. Tall podocarp trees (rimu, miro, Hall's totara) then succeed and the end point of this sequence can be found on the higher glacial outwash surfaces (around 25,000 years old); here the extremely leached, infertile soils can only support a stunted heath and bog vegetation.

The most impressive landform chronosequence is the flights of marine terraces in southern Fiordland. Ten terraces span an age range of 600,000 years. The vegetation ranges from tall mixed silver beech/podocarp/broadleaved forest on the lower terraces (50-100 m altitude), through mountain beech/podocarp woodland at mid-altitudes (300-400 m), to mosaics of dwarf manuka/mountain beech/podocarp shrubland and cushion bog on the higher and older terraces (600 m).


Excluding the outlying Bounty Islands, the largest breeding congregations of New Zealand fur seal Arctocephalus forsteri are found along the South-West coast. Although virtually annihilated last century, the fur seal population has recovered steadily, and now numbers in excess of 50,000 individuals. The South-West area is home to the endemic Victoria penguin Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, with some 1,000 to 2,000 pairs breeding annually.

As the least modified region on mainland New Zealand, the South-West is the core habitat for many indigenous animals including a number of primitive taxa and contains the largest and most significant populations of forest birds in the country, most of which are endemic to New Zealand. Two of New Zealand's three species of kiwi are found in the South-West: small numbers of great spotted kiwi Apteryx haasti, and the entire population of the South Island subspecies of brown kiwi Apteryx australis. An endemic family of passerines, the Xenicidae, is represented by rock wren Xenicus gilviventris and rifleman Acanthisitta chloris. It is also the stronghold of both members of an endemic genus of parrots. Kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, is restricted to the South Island mountain country. Its forest relative, the kaka N. meridionalis, is found most abundantly in the beech/podocarp forests of southern South Westland and south-east Fiordland, particularly Waitutu. The country's largest populations of endemic yellow-crowned parakeet Cyanoramphus auriceps is found in the South-West's tall lowland beech forests and dense podocarp forests. A few mountain valleys in Fiordland harbor the total wild population (about 170 birds) of the rare and endangered takahe Notornis mantelli (E), a large flightless rail believed extinct until "rediscovered" in 1948. Other birds with no close relatives beyond New Zealand found in the area include: blue duck Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos, wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis and western weka Gallirallus australis.

caption Okarito Lagoon, on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. (Source: United States Geological Survey)

Okarito Lagoon is the largest estuarine lagoon on the South Island's west coast and is an important habitat for wading birds, including South Island pied oystercatcher Haematopus sp., pied stilt and the migratory bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica and knot Calidris sp. Freshwater wetlands in the South-West support sizable populations of several wetland birds, including grey duck, paradise shelduck Tadorna variegata and shoveler Anas rhynchotis, two species of shag Phalacrocorax spp. and marsh and spotless crake. Two species are largely confined to open water habitats of the area's numerous lakes: the nationally endangered southern crested grebe Podiceps sp. and the endemic New Zealand scaup Aythya novaeseelandiae. In the lower tussock grasslands, native bird life is restricted to a few open country species such as New Zealand falcon Falco novaeseelandiae, Australasian harrier Circus sp. and New Zealand pipit Anthus sp. River bed invertebrates support a diverse birdlife including wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis, paradise shelduck Tadorna variegata, black-billed gull, black-fronted tern Sterna albistriata and banded dotterel Pluvialis obscura. The World Heritage area contains the largest populations of the following other uncommon or declining bird species: the forest race of New Zealand falcon ; fernbird Bowdleria punctata and Fiordland crested penguin Eudyptes pachyrhynchus. More than 100 species of birds have been recorded in the World Heritage area, more than half of the species that breed in New Zealand.

Very little is known about the lizard fauna of the South-West. Leiolopisma acrinasum, endemic to Fiordland is found and Haplodactylus granulatus is probably a distinctive species isolated to the South-West. Four species of carnivorous Powelliphanta snails are known from the area, all from high altitude silver beech forest. Fiordland is estimated to contain about 700 species of moths Lepidoptera, or 25% of the known New Zealand total, and it is estimated that 35 are endemic to Fiordland.

The native freshwater fish fauna, totaling 17 species, is exceptionally large relative to the rest of New Zealand. Several species rare or absent from settled regions are commonplace in the South-West, e.g. giant kokopu. All but four of the fish species are endemic. The best-represented genera are Galaxias and Gobiomorphus.

A number of mammalian species have been introduced, including rats Muridae, stoat Mustela erminea, fallow deer Cervus dama, wapiti (red deer) Cervus elaphus, Himalayan thar Hemitragus jemlahicus, goat Capra sp., chamois Rupicapra rupicapra, pigs Sus sp. and possum Trichosurus vulpecula, with severe ecological impacts discussed below.

Cultural Heritage

A Maori association falls into three broad categories: mythological, traditional history and ethnological. All of these values are contained within the tradition of the Ngai Tahu tribe, whose ancestral territories cover all except the extreme northern parts of the South Island. In the 18th and 19th centuries, southern Ngai Tahu voyaged to Fiordland to hunt seals. It was thought until recently that Maori occupation of Fiordland was sparse and seasonal. More recent work suggests that it may have been more numerous and settled than was previously believed. The first European to see the area was the Dutch navigator, Abel Janzoon Tasman, in December 1642. Sealing began in Fiordland in 1792 and by 1820 the seal populations had been reduced to non-commercial levels. Seals were given legal protection in 1875. Whalers established short-lived coastal stations during the 1800s. Gold was discovered in the early 1860s in South Westland and Central Otago but within a few years most of the boom towns were abandoned.

Local Human Population

This area is the least populated part of New Zealand. On the West Coast, land uses are grazing, whitebait fishing, small-scale mining and sphagnum moss harvesting. Extensive pastoralism is the main land use to the east of the World Heritage area. In Southland intensive and extensive grazing, exotic and indigenous forestry is practiced adjacent to the World Heritage area. Sheep and cattle grazing is permitted under license or lease on a limited number of grassland areas on valley floors.Mineral exploration, prospecting and mining is permitted only with the consent of the Minister of Conservation. There are no significant mining activities within the World Heritage area, although small-scale gold mining occurs on the beaches and some rivers of the West Coast according to conditions monitored by the Department of Conservation.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

Milford Sound, Mount Cook and Franz Josef and Fox glaciers have been major visitor attractions from the earliest days of New Zealand's tourism industry. A variety of commercial recreation services operates under concession agreements with the Department of Conservation throughout the World Heritage area. The Department of Conservation manages nine visitor centers. The Haast visitor center, opened in 1991, was specifically planned to interpret the World Heritage area, especially the lowland rain forests of South Westland.

Scientific Research and Facilities

By the turn of the century, exploration of the South-West had largely become the interest of mountaineer explorers. Some areas in the Mount Aspiring region were not explored by foot until the 1950s and some of the more remote valleys of Fiordland were still considered unexplored in the 1970s at the time that accurate detailed topographic maps became available for this remotest corner of New Zealand. The nomination document includes a bibliography under the headings film and videos, geology, soils and landforms, vegetation, wildlife, natural history, cultural history, resource use, recreation and tourism, park handbooks, investigation reports, management plans and overviews. An extensive program of on-going research is being carried out within the area.

Conservation Values

The site offers a landscape shaped by successive glaciations into fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. Two-thirds of the park are covered with southern beech and podocarps, some of which are over 800 years old. The park is also home to the world's only alpine parrot species, namely kea, as well as the endangered takahe.

Conservation Management

With the formation of the Department of Conservation in April 1987, the opportunity was provided for the coordinated management of all the natural lands of the Crown. This opened the way for the creation of one, large, fully-representative World Heritage Site in the south-west of the South Island. In term of management arrangements, the whole area is the responsibility of one government department but no overall management authority, or administrative structure, for the site is currently planned. National parks policy aims for the extermination of introduced animals within the parks. In other protected areas their populations are kept at low levels to minimize impact on native flora and fauna. Control methods include recreational and commercial hunting by foot and helicopter. The Department of Conservation has initiated control programs in faun] sanctuaries and is developing and implementing recovery plans for the threatened species. Exotic weeds are a minor problem and are mainly confined to disturbed sites.

The four national parks in the World Heritage area preserved in perpetuity for their intrinsic worth and for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public, protected under the provisions of the National Parks Act (1980). The Reserves Act (1977) makes provision for the protection of the different reserves within the World Heritage area as follows. Scenic reserves are managed for the protection and preservation in perpetuity of areas of scenic interest and beauty, and natural features or landscape for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public (Section 19). Nature reserves are managed for the protection and preservation in perpetuity of indigenous fauna and flora or natural features, of rarity, scientific interest or importance (Section 20). Scientific reserves are managed for the purpose of protection and preserving in perpetuity for scientific, research, education and for the benefit of the country, ecological associations, plant or animal communities, types of soil and geomorphological processes (Section 21). Protected private land is held for scenic purposes and managed as if it were a scenic reserve (Section 76). Ecological areas were formerly ecological areas under the Forests Act 1949. They are set aside under Section 21 and Section 26 of the 1987 Conservation Act primarily for scientific purposes, to protect representative ecosystems or rare plant and/or animal communities. Conservation areas held under Section 62 of the Conservation Act are deemed to be held for conservation purposes, which means the preservation and protection of their historical and natural resources for the purposes of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations. Some conservation areas have been gazetted under Section 7 of the Conservation Act and are held for the protection of natural and historic resources and are called stewardship areas (Section 25). They may at some future time receive higher protection under Section 18 of the Conservation Act.

The principal uses of the World Heritage Site are nature conservation, natural resource-based recreation and tourism and sustainable small-scale natural resource utilization. While in detail there is some variation in management approach, all areas are protected or preserved for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values for present and future generations. Historic sites are to be found in a number of locations and depending on their sensitivity are available for public education and enjoyment.

The whole area will be covered by four Conservation Management Strategies (CMS) - Southland, Otago, Canterbury and West Coast - and several National Park Management Plans prepared by the department. These CMS's are the strategic planning documents for the whole area, and the national park plans are statutory planning documents that provide greater detail on the management of specific areas. Each of the four CMS's share a section on World Heritage management issues. All management plans are operative for a ten year period.

Management Constraints

The greatest environmental impact has been the introduction of browsing and predatory mammals. Population increases of red deer in the 1940s and 1950s threatened the integrity of the forest and alpine ecosystems. Other browsing mammals, such as wapiti, fallow deer, goat, chamois and thar, have restricted distributions but have caused severe damage in places. Numbers of all the above species have fallen sharply since the advent of commercial hunting from helicopters, with a corresponding recovery of the vegetation, particularly in open alpine areas. Australian brush-tailed possum has caused severe mortality in montane rata/kamahi forests in the north. They are still extending their range into previously possum-free areas such as the Haast district. Rabbit populations affect some grasslands on the eastern side of the World Heritage area. Introduced mustelids and rodents have had a devastating impact on indigenous bird life. Several species have become extinct and most bird populations have been greatly reduced. The most prolific weedis gorse, marram grass is widespread in South Westland and willow is a potentially serious threat to streams, but at present is easily controlled. A major underground hydro-electric power station is situated under the western extremity of Lake Manapouri. Associated high voltage transmission lines and roading have considerable but localized impacts. The owners of the coastal section of the Waitutu forest, along the park's southern boundary, have entered into a logging contract. The decision under the Resource Management Act on the application to log the land is still being awaited, but in the meantime the New Zealand Government has entered in to negotiations with the owners in an endeavor to save the coastal forest from logging.

International visitor numbers have been increasing at over 10% a year for the past two years. Numbers of walkers in the three most popular tracks have also increased considerably. These tracks are managed as "Great Walks", and two of them, Routburn and Milford, are managed using a booking system. In addition, two of the most popular visitor destinations, Mt Cook and Milford, are experiencing considerable international growth. While facilities at Milford have been redeveloped to cope with the growth, Mt Cook village is under increasing pressure from visitor numbers.


There are approximately 70 Department of Conservation Staff in field management and visitor servicing, located at eight field centers in and around the World Heritage Area.


Financial provision for the management of the World Heritage area is made annually through Vote: Conservation, approved by the New Zealand Parliament. Annual estimates of expenditure are assessed according to the Department of Conservation's Corporate Plan. In February 1989, as part of its decision to protect South Westland's forests, the Government allocated $1.5 million towards recreational and tourist development in South Westland.

IUCN Management Category

Natural World Heritage Site - Criteria i, ii, iii, iv

Further Reading

  • Department of Conservation (1989). Nomination of South-West New Zealand (Te Wahipounamu) by the Government of New Zealand for inclusion in the World Heritage List. Prepared by the Department of Conservation with the assistance of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (NZ) Inc. and Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board. Wellington, New Zealand. 69 pp.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP- WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP- WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Te Wahipounamu (South-West New Zealand World Heritage Area), New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156430


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