by Kate Waterhouse


The summers of the 70s and 80s were like this one – long and dry, the hills around us at Okiwi and out on Waikaro Point yellow and crackling. So I indulged in my favourite summer thing – read a great New Zealand novel. Thom Conroy’s “The Naturalist” tells the story of Ernst Dieffenbach – the New Zealand Company’s German born naturalist who accompanied the ships sent to negotiate parts of the Wellington and Malborough region for settlement. In one passage Dieffenbach tells of being taken into the hills behind Wellington to collect Huia, returning with 20 in his specimen bag. The desecration of New Zealand that occurred in the 19th century has wiped all memory of the wild melody of our forests from the collective mind. More than 120 species became extinct, and whole ecosystems were destroyed – the huge kahikatea forest of the Hauraki plans, kauri forests of Auckland and Northland, the stunning abundance of the Hauraki Gulf. This happened too on Aotea.

Even in our lifetimes, we have seen serious decline in all the species that call Aotea home. Most poignant for me, the kokako – the last two taken out of Wreck Bay by a team led by Don Woodcock 28 years ago. As a teenager I remember being spellbound by the sound of their call floating across the valley in Te Paparahi. My grand-mother tells that they used to come around her feet like chickens. In those summers we would hear petrels overhead every night as they came and went from their burrows high on all the forested ridges of the island – it was the sound of the night if you were camping. There were flocks of hundreds of brown teal at roosting sites around the estuaries and inlets. Kaka and kereru were everywhere.

Yet the crowns of pohutukawa and puriri on our island are green and glossy – not the bare browsed bones you see in the canopies of trees on the mainland. This is because we have an island free of all but 2 of the worst predators – but it is still silent at times, like a cathedral standing empty of a choir. This is the slow and inevitable effect of rats and feral cats on song birds, lizards, insects and general forest health.

But it could be much worse. This summer the Department of Conservation has dropped 700,000 tonnes of 1080 on the public conservation lands of the South Island. They have the support of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright. Dr Wright knows that without such wholesale measures, populations of stoats, possums and rats will boom, feeding on the tonnes of beech seeds produced by a mast year. When that food runs out the predators start on the birds – as we saw following the last mast year, when the only population of yellowheads in the Malborough Sounds was lost, and many other bird populations took similar hits.

Someone is listening though. 2014 saw the creation of Aotea Great Barrier as a Conservation Park –somewhat at short notice an ebullient Nick Smith ( the then Minister for Conservation) and local MP Nikki Kaye popped out of a helicopter and it was happening. In fact the protection our island’s conservation land now enjoys has not increased under this new status – it is a park, but the land is only marginally more protected than before. And at the same time, DOC staffing on Aotea has reached its lowest levels ever, with a single Field Manager covering both the Barrier and Raoul Island. Highly skilled biodiversity rangers have left the island and are yet to be replaced and budgets are now split between Auckland and Whangarei.

When the mainland forests and birdlife is under siege from literally millions of predators, it is taking a long time for our politicians and public servants to create the case for one of the world’s largest inhabited predator-free sanctuaries. This is what a committed group of Local Board members, iwi and specialists proposed to be funded by the Next Foundation last June. We put forward a roadmap which, subject to our community being willing to share such a future, would create one of the world’s only inhabited and most accessible island sanctuaries, close to Auckland itself. We were not successful this time – and NEXT are instead supporting an innovative NZ pest control technology company to trial alterative pest eradication methods all over NZ, including in our very own Glenfern Sanctuary.

The Trust had heard that there may be a belief in Wellington that the community doesn’t want to protect its taonga and even, that a pest-free future is just not possible. So unfortunately we have the challenge of the slow and inevitable decline, thanks to rats, of the birds and creatures we take for granted here, and also the low-level of resourcing for the Department of Conservation team who can help us protect and restore what is still here.
On the plus side, there are some in Wellington who do see the big picture – Aotea as an island sanctuary. The proposed public purchase of Glenfern Sanctuary will be another step down that path, creating a focal point for pest control technology and local skill development, preserving the legacy of Tony Bouzaid and historic Glenfern homestead itself.

But another long, dry summer and we could lose our last käkäriki and tomtits. Chevron skinks, pateke/brown teal and black petrel will all continue their slow decline to extinction. Our elected parliamentarians must think bigger, address the opportunity on Aotea by actively supporting the processes needed to build knowledge in the community and work with partners of all kinds to trial new technology, and build capacity and employment in conservation. This is a government that prides itself on innovation and partnership and more of that is precisely what is needed here.

Environmental News Issue 34 2015