A North Island brown kiwi. Image: Getty

The Kaitiaki of the Omataroa kiwi

Ian Tarei has spent over a decade protecting kiwi in the forested hills behind the Eastern Bay of Plenty settlement of Awakeri. Late last month Jason Renes joined him on a kiwi call count to learn how the Omataroa Kiwi Project made its way out of some hard times to become a kiwi conservation success.

The bush has a special kind of darkness. Layer upon layer of night-blackened shrubs and hardwoods close out any space where the glow of the moon might spill. Southerlies bash the shadowy canopy of the wildling pines and a misty drizzle patters the face.

Eyes are of no use on a night like this. Only ears can be trusted.

A call rings out from down in a gully. The shrill cry of a male North Island brown kiwi. A quavering whistle that draws out then flicks off at a high pitch. It is repeated about a dozen times – he is looking for his mate. Females have a raspier, hoarser call at a lower register. Hers is hard for human ears to catch when the wind is blowing and the trees are shaking. But there is definitely a female here. Previous surveys have put a kiwi adult pair in this gully. They will continue to cry out, to try and pin-point one another. As they come nearer the number of call repetitions will shorten. And when they finally come together, all will fall silent again in the gully.

While the sonic search of the kiwi plays out, Ian Tarei (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe) teaches his mokopuna Shaedon how to document the calls. They are out here taking a kiwi call count – listening to the birds in order to get a gauge on their numbers. Tarei’s well tuned ears can tell which direction the calls come from and he gives a compass bearing to Shaedon, who jots it down in a notebook along with the time each call is heard and the sex of the bird. Shaedon also works the antenna of a radio receiver. Kiwi adults in this block of forest, the Puhikoko reserve, will have transmitters around their feet. The different types of clicks given off by the transmitters and picked up by the receiver can tell how close the bird is, whether it’s nesting or whether it’s on the move.

Eventually the male call ends. He must have found his mate. As Tarei is getting ready to leave the gully he hears a different kind of cry. Single whistles. Short and plaintive. He gets excited because they are the sounds of a wild juvenile kiwi who is still learning to call. Hearing juveniles is always a good sign. It means the young are surviving and growing and that the kiwi in the Omataroa hills are flourishing.

Ian Tarei is project manager of the Omataroa Kiwi Project. He is on-the-ground kaitiaki of kiwi in the Puhikoko reserve, a 546 hectare block under kawenata (protected covenant) in the middle of a dense forest between Awakeri and the western Te Urewera ranges.

Conservation is in his blood. He has been trapping pests in these hills since he was a teenager and has continued the work ever since. The first kiwi survey took place here after years of intensive possum control. The Omataroa Rangitaiki No 2 Trust, who manages this forest, found an aging population in small numbers – only 10 pairs. There were no young birds. Ngā Whenua Rāhui, a DOC funding programme that protects whenua integrity through 25 year covenants, came to help establish the kawenata in Puhikoko. Later, in 2001, several rounds of pest control began again.

Ian Tarei with Whakatoi, an 18 month old male. Whakatoi is still growing to full size so the transmitter strap around his foot, which was starting to tighten, had to be re-adjusted. Just one of the many monitoring jobs Tarei and his team undertake in the Puhikoko reserve. Image: Jason Renes

A seven-year infrastructure was put in place with the help of funding from Ngā Whenua Rāhui, and this was the start of the Omataroa Kiwi Project.

However, things would become very tight for the project. The kick start funding only covered three years. What followed was a four or five year period where Tarei and Omataroa barely kept their heads above water, with small amounts of money coming in from the trust and their forestry partner, Raynoier/Matariki.  Tarei recalls they even had to rely on possum fur sales to keep things going.

“It was hard,” he says the day after the call count. Tarei sits on a mat of rusty pine needles. A black-headed tom tit flits around the branches above him.

“The thing for us was we were really passionate about what we were doing. We were land-owners and kaitiaki on our own whenua. Working for our own whenua and working with the kiwi. There were a few times when we were going to just about call it quits really, but we just stuck it out.

“And then Morgan came along.”

Morgan Cox came to Omataroa from the Kiwis for Kiwi Trust, Aotearoa’s only national charity organisation dedicated to protecting the bird. His role as Kaitautoko Kaupapa Kiwi sees him work alongside tangata whenua kiwi projects. When he came to support this project around six years ago, Cox saw how much help they really needed.

“It’s hard work running a project like this and building it sustainably. Getting sustainable partnerships and funding coming in. [One] aspect was the different agencies, and people who were there to support, weren’t coordinated themselves. It was hard for them to see how they could fit in.”

As with most things, communication was key in getting the Omataroa Kiwi Project to not only survive, but thrive.

“We got their story down on paper, that was probably the key bit. There’s a lot of support that wants to come behind projects like this, but sometimes people don’t understand what the kaupapa is. So, in order to get support you’ve got to be really clear on what you want and how you’re going to get there.”

With the coordination of the main stakeholders, including the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Sisam and Sons Limited and forestry service PF Olsen, Tarei was able to re-double pest control. Trapping has now extended out to include a total block of about 12,000 hectares. These efforts have succeeded. More than 10 years after the project began there are now over 60 breeding kiwi pairs in the block.

“It’s pretty intense,” says Tarei.

Our tīpuna would understand the devotion to this manu. They spoke of it in the ancient tale of how kiwi became flightless in the first place. The story goes that kiwi was the only one to step forward when Tānehokahoka, guardian of the birds, asked for someone to give up their wings, to live on the ground and protect the tree roots from ravaging insects.

All other birds refused, but kiwi made the sacrifice. For this act of love Tānehokahoka declared that while kiwi may never fly, it would forever be the most cherished and revered bird in the forest.

That reverence is alive and well in the Omataroa hills.

“The big picture for us would be to create a kiwi habitat under protection,” says Tarei. “From the Ureweras down to the Rangitaiki Plains. Over 20,000 hectares. We’ve put a budget and a plan together, we’ve put an application out to Kiwis for Kiwi to get extra funds for traps. We’re already over half way there.”

The work done for these birds is a recognition of how special they are to the biodiversity of Aotearoa. As the Omataroa kiwi have developed and progressed, so too has the vision for their unhindered re-establishment in that bush. Spreading the kiwi habitat out to 20,000 hectares will be a massive undertaking of pest control, but the foundation prepared by Tarei and the kiwi project over the last 10 years means it is more than achievable.

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