Donald C Fraser, Controller: New Zealand Karst Index Project, New Zealand Speleological Society, WAITOMO CAVES

The New Zealand Speleological Society was incorporated as a Society in 1949 with the express purpose of making karst data available to "earnest enquirers"1. In the intervening years the Society has grown to perform many diverse functions; from representing member's political interests to organising expeditions.

A quarterly bulletin2 has recorded the discovery, exploration and surveying of caves and has gained recognition for its high scientific content. There have been one hundred and thirty two issues to date and a wealth of karst information is contained within its volumes. Other journals, theses, dissertations and government agencies have all recorded karst information from time to time. Therefore there exists much recorded data and information on karst in New Zealand. The prime function of a New Zealand karst index database is to bring this information together in a more accessible and usable form than at present.

That a New Zealand karst index database should now emerge is particularly fortuitous as a national policy on New Zealand cave and karst management has just been jointly presented by the Department of Lands and Survey3 and the New Zealand Forest Service.

An Australian karst index database has been developed by Peter Mathews in Melbourne. This index is to be used as a model for the New Zealand karst index with the cooperation of the Australian Speleological Federation and Peter Mathews.

The use of this Australian model has a number of advantages. Firstly, it provides most of the categories into which New Zealand karst data will slot. Secondly, it saves the considerable effort and time required to develop an index from the ground up and thirdly, it ensures conformity with international guidelines which are currently being established for the storage of karst data.

The practical preparation of a New Zealand karst index is well underway:

An alphabetical coding of all New Zealand karst localities has been prepared in draft form and is presented as Appendix A. The identification of a cave entrance or karst feature within the karst index database is primarily by its locality code followed by a numeric identifier. Each entrance is uniquely identified.

A cave entrance or karst feature is not placed within a cave locality by virtue of its location inside set boundaries but rather by its closeness to a locality. The localities used are generally the smallest geographic area identified by a name. Where there are insufficient known karst features or caves to justify a locality identification these features are assigned a category Z code. This can be a temporary coding.

Draft forms of the New Zealand karst index have been prepared from those of the Australian karst index with input from government departments, universities and speleologists. These are presented as Appendix B. They show the storage categories and options for the database. It should be noted that those categories marked 'M' allow multiple entries. The comments section can be used for data not able to be stored within the specified categories or to expand any category. Over 500 caves have been entered onto forms and await computer storage. The total of known caves in New Zealand is probably less than 1000.

It is not intended that missing karst data will be sought on each cave or karst feature, rather that the karst index will be somewhere to put information already collected and new information as it becomes available. The index will however, point in the direction of data lacking.

An occasional newsletter is presently in preparation for circulation to all parties interested in this project and will be a means of maintaining contact and advising progress.

Financial assistance toward the cost of computer equipment is currently being sought from the Department of Lands and Survey and the New Zealand Forest Service. It is anticipated that the Waitomo Caves Museum Society and the New Zealand Speleological Society will also contribute.

The project is housed, along with the New Zealand Speleological Society library, in the Waitomo Caves Museum which has become a centre for karst research. Two people are employed full time on this project and a third (myself) is employed as a supervisor.

Subject to the New Zealand Speleological Society Council confirmation, the karst index will be available to government agencies, universities, local bodies and local (New Zealand Speleological Society affiliated) caving groups. Other users can gain access to the database by application to the New Zealand Speleological Society Council who may consult with local caving groups.

Caves are extremely vulnerable to user impact and the New Zealand Speleological Society is therefore wary of placing caves in jeopardy by making information readily available in the public domain. That a karst index exists at all could be seen as a threat to caves. There is concern at the volume of people presently visiting wild caves on once only trips and the damage these people can and do cause to caves. Any move to make karst data more accessible could exacerbate this situation. Conversely, the database will allow caves under potential threat and sensitive caves to be identified as a first step toward their protection.

The New Zealand Speleological Society has policies with respect to cave conservation4 and has published ethical guidelines5. Of particular relevance is the Society policy with respect to published information6. All users of the karst index will be expected to adhere to the New Zealand Speleological Society Conservation Policy and Ethical Guidelines, at least insofar as their use of karst index information is concerned.

Although immediate information will be available to those users described above, New Zealand Speleological Society Council approval will be required for access to some listings in some categories for example: cave locations will not normally be available to within a km2, nor will sensitive information concerning Maori burial caves. It is likely that the New Zealand Speleological Society Council will appoint a Karst Index Controller who will be responsible for an annual update of the index and will be empowered to release some or all restricted information.

There are three principal uses to which this data base can be put:

1. Research: the database will store almost all scientific information on karst in New Zealand and will therefore allow national searches on any specific category to be conducted. Similarly other quantified data contained by the index will allow searches to be carried out at any level up to national. Access to and conformity with the database of other countries will allow international research.

2. Land Management: for those government departments and local bodies concerned with karst land management the index will provide almost all relevant information on the known karst resource within a given area. The size of caves, extent and quality of decoration, scientific importance, hazards, surface use and many other categories are available (see Appendix B). That this information is contained in one source and can be formatted in any manner desired should provide for all requirements of karst data and land management.

3. Caving: in rescue contingency planning, and cave prospecting and exploration, the karst index will be of considerable value. It will point towards areas not adequately explored and provide a means of recording continuing new exploration.

Two options for data storage are currently under consideration. The first is for the principal data storage to be on VAX computers at the University of Auckland. This data would first be entered on a micro computer at the Waitomo Caves Museum by project workers and then transferred to Auckland from where it could be retrieved by users. The second option is for the storage of data at the Waitomo Caves Museum and its retrieval from there as either 'hard copy' or by modem to other computers. The size of computer necessary to the second option is greater than that for the first and some additional programming would be needed to implement this option.

Although the karst index is in its infancy in New Zealand, the groundwork already done by Peter Mathews (Australian Speleological Federation) and the employment of full time staff have seen rapid progress to the present. If direct government financial assistance is added to the departmental cooperation already received, the karst index could be up and running within 6 months or so. Without this assistance the project may collapse as neither the Waitomo Caves Museum Society nor the New Zealand Speleological Society have the financial resources to meet the full computer cost. A New Zealand karst index will be of immense value to researches, land managers and cavers in allowing the full and effective use of past and future karst data.


1.NEW ZEALAND SPELEOLOGICAL SOCIETY, The Little Red Cavers Book, PO Box l8 Waitomo Caves, p1, 1985

2.NEW ZEALAND SPELEOLOGICAL SOCIETY, New Zealand Speleological Society Bulletin, March 1952 to present

3.WILDE K, National Policy on Cave and Karst Management, Proceedings on the Fifth Australasian Conference on Cave Tourism and Management, Waitomo Caves, l985, in prep

4.Ref 1, pp5-6

5.Ibid, pp6-10

6.Ibid, pp8

Appendices A & B