New Zealand and China share cultural connection through conservation

Business & Economy

New Zealand’s national parks are the jewel in our conservation crown – vast wilderness areas protected from development, an irresistible drawcard for locals and visitors alike.

In many ways New Zealand’s management of protected lands is world-leading, but there is still much to learn from others. Collaboration is key to improving outcomes and shaping policy in the years ahead. Dr Mick Abbott, professor of Landscape Architecture at Lincoln University, has been collaborating with researchers in China since 2014, with support from Education New Zealand’s Tripartite Fund. The fund assists New Zealand universities to join in research partnerships as the “Third Brother” with two Chinese Universities - one “emerging” and the other “established”.

Dr Abbott has been working with Tsinghua University in Beijing and Kunming University of Science and Technology in Yunnan province on research projects, field trips, workshops, student courses, and the production of bilingual learning materials.

Need to look beyond our borders 

“Conservation underpins our value proposition to the world,” he says.

“While we achieve very good conservation outcomes in New Zealand, it is essential that we look beyond our borders for further research and understanding.”

While China looks to New Zealand for leadership on how to effectively protect pristine environments from the impacts of recreation and tourism, New Zealand stands to learn a lot from how China celebrates its cultural connections with nature, Dr Abbott says.

“Protected lands in China are associated with cultural value. In Chinese thinking ecological civilisation underpins wider civilisation. They take a holistic view and there are elements in common with Mātauranga Māori (Māori wisdom and world view).

Cross-cultural thinking important

Mātauranga Māori can enhance the cultural connection between Maori and Chinese and creates valuable synergies, he says. “Cross-cultural thinking is so important.”

Key to the success of the long-term relationship was an exhibition Lincoln University curated in Beijing in 2017, showcasing New Zealand’s protected areas and a range of eye-catching exhibits, alongside Lincoln’s research and that of Tsinghua University on the future direction of protected area management. 

The exhibition attracted 50,000 visitors and kicked off the WildAtlas project which Dr Abbott has spent the past four years developing. WildAtlas is a collection of virtual tours that bring to life the stories of New Zealand’s National Parks and protected areas, both past and present.

Available in both English and Chinese, WildAtlas is principally used as an educational tool aimed at university students, but Dr Abbott would like to extend its reach to Year 12 and 13 students. “Land issues are really important in this country, and we must understand there are other ways to view the land. We need to broaden the horizons of our students.”

Conservation experiences a key attraction

Looking to the future, Dr Abbott says that New Zealand conservation managers will benefit from a better understanding of the type of National Park experiences that are attractive to Chinese visitors.

“Pre-Covid, China was New Zealand’s second largest inbound tourism market and largest long-haul market. Our conservation areas and national parks are a key attraction.”

He is using the latest round of Tripartite funding to create a corresponding Virtual Field Tour of the Protected Areas of Yunnan Province, home to Kunming University of Science and Technology.

Dr Abbott is hugely positive about the relationship which has been built with Tsinghua and Kunming universities through the Tripartite Fund and believes the collaboration will lead to business and investment opportunities in the future.

“We must foster goodwill and understanding first, share our values, and advocate for them.

Editor’s note: New Zealand’s involvement in the Tripartite Fund dates back to 2005, when the New Zealand and Chinese Ministries of Education agreed to formally support and promote tripartite relationships between New Zealand and China, in which a New Zealand university is joined as the ‘third brother’ to an existing ‘two brothers’ arrangement. 

For more information on the NZ-China Tripartite Fund or to learn more about Professor Abbott’s research, please contact the ENZ team at

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