Ultrawild by Steve Mushin
Ultrawild by Steve Mushin

BooksJune 8, 2024

Ultrawilding: Aotearoa and the tech revolution giving nature a leg-up

Ultrawild by Steve Mushin
Ultrawild by Steve Mushin

Steve Mushin’s book Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan to Rewild Every City On Earth is on the shortlist for this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Here’s why he thinks Aotearoa is leading an ultrawilding revolution.

No one imagined we’d lead the world in filmmaking or building rockets. But Aotearoa is quietly becoming the world leader in rewilding technology, too.

I started thinking about rewilding cities while walking in a cool-temperate rainforest in south-eastern Australia in 2015. Gazing up at 20-storey-tall mountain ash trees, I began wondering what it would take to return such giants to cities. To live among them with millions of other species. A kind of extreme version of rewilding. I called it ultrawilding. And I decided to invent whatever it takes to make it happen. That was nearly 10 years ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

My book Ultrawild is a collection of future technologies for ultrawilding cities, based on real engineering possibilities. Like 3D printed birds which create hollows and perches before fledgling trees are large enough to offer homes. Or water-filtering sewer submarines which help us daylight city rivers. It’s a science-comedy to kickstart creative thinking. But rewilding is deadly serious business.

Rewilding means repairing damaged ecosystems by removing pest species and reintroducing native species. Then stepping back and leaving nature to heal and to thrive, without human management. I use the term ultrawilding to describe urban rewilding, because in cities we often need human management and technology to overcome the challenges of coexisting with wild species. 

Even as we’re bombarded by headlines about the destruction of nature, massive rewilding projects are happening worldwide. And they’re rebuilding ecosystems and sequestering carbon faster than most people believe is possible. Rewilding must not be used as a substitute for ending fossil fuels now – the two must happen simultaneously. But rewilding is an incredible tool in the fight against climate breakdown – because biodiverse natural forests and other wild ecosystems are powerful carbon sinks that can store up to 40 times as much carbon as plantation forests. A recent scientific study in Nature found that restoring just 15% of land in some regions of the world could avoid 60% of likely extinctions, and lock up 299 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

3D printed bird from Ultrawild by Steve Mushin

In Yellowstone in the US, the famous re-introduction of wolves controlled elk numbers, helping bald valleys return to lush forests of beavers, eagles, badgers and otters. In Scotland, rainforests are returning after thousands of years. In continental Europe, brown bears, bison and wolverine have been returned, and projects aim to rewild 8 million hectares by 2030. In Chile, 4.5 million hectares of rewilding is restoring habitat for pumas, guanaco and condors.

And cities are experimenting with ultrawilding too. In Singapore, steel supertrees create gigantic habitats for birds and insects. In Zurich, a railway station roof is a lizard garden. Dutch bus stops are covered in bee gardens. In Seoul an inner-city motorway has been removed to restore a river. And in Melbourne, high-tech hollows are already being 3D printed for urban owls

I wrote a lot of Ultrawild in Australia while studying high-profile rewilding projects around the world. But heatwaves drove me home to Wellington to finish it off. And while struggling with the final chapter, trying to find a prominent city to best illustrate high-tech urban rewilding, I had the funniest realisation… I LIVE IN THAT CITY!

Strangely, I’d never thought of conservation in Aotearoa as rewilding. Most people I talk to haven’t. We don’t tend to use the word. But I’ve come to realise that rewilding is exactly what we’re doing. And when it comes to ultrawilding, I think we’re the world leader.

Thousands of New Zealanders and dozens of tech start-ups have been quietly working away for a decade, on one of the world’s most visionary conservation projects: Predator Free – an ambitious plan to rid the country of introduced predators and create habitat for native animals. This is rewilding. And where I live, the inventive projects and technologies that have helped return kererū, kākā, kākāriki, kiwi and other long-absent birds to the inner suburbs, coupled with the second highest level of urban tree canopy in the world – according to a University Of Canterbury report, and Treepedia – arguably makes Wellington the most ultrawilded city in the world.

Wellington is a hub of ultrawilding because of its massive community engagement in trapping, ecosystem monitoring and habitat building. Because of the pioneering inner-suburban Zealandia sanctuary, whose world-first predator-exclusion-fence technology has helped endangered species thrive and spread their wings across the city. Because of the Capital Kiwi Project’s remarkable work returning kiwi to the hills. Because of inspiring iwi-led freshwater restoration projects like Sanctuary to Sea. But also because of a new technology boom.

In Wellington, and across the country, Predator Free 2050 Limited and the Department of Conservation have helped kick-start dozens of companies – to develop, test and manufacture rewilding innovations. And increasingly these gadgets are being exported to help to rewild the world.

So who are the future Wētā FX and Rocket Labs of rewilding and ultrawilding?

In the back streets of Wellington’s Newtown you’ll find Goodnature. You’ve probably seen their awesome orange and black automatic rat traps that reload themselves and communicate data across gardens in Auckland and through the steepest valleys of Fiordland. But have you seen AI cameras? 

To become predator free, and therefore rewild fast, we need to know where the last few predators are hanging out in a landscape. Enter Zero Invasive Predators, or ZIP. They’re working around the country on super cool projects including a thermal camera that uses AI to identify wildlife. And have you heard of AI ears? 

Christchurch company Cacophony has developed AI bird song monitors that listen to the bush and work out who’s talking to who. Super handy if you need to work out if that’s a hihi or a pōpokotea in your garden. And invaluable if you want to remotely map thousands of hectares of tree canopy in the search for South Island kōkako. Also from Christchurch are Critter Solutions, whose AI Smart traps identify possum from kiwi.

If AI feels a bit too high-tech for you and your whānau, think again. High school students have recently been testing the Wētā Watcher – a build-it-yourself insect monitoring device that uses AI to detect wētā and other insects crawling around the backyard – so we can help protect them. Wētā Watcher is the invention of Wildlife.ai, a Taranaki-based start-up who have also created Spyfish to identify native fish species, and Pepeketua, a pattern recognition software that can identify the faces of individual frogs.

Then there’s technology for massive-scale projects. Engineers at Tauranga’s Envico Technologies have developed a dishwasher-size drone that precision drops 10,000 seed bombs per hectare to plant 50 hectares of forest a day. Perfect for Auckland-based Pure Advantage’s Recloaking Papatūānuku – an epic-scale rewilding project informed and guided by mātauranga Māori. Their aim is to reforest over two million hectares of the motu – the equivalent of 59 new Te Papakura o Taranaki (Egmont National Parks) – capturing 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Pages from Ultrawild by Steve Mushin

Aotearoa’s rewilding tech sector is booming like kākāpō. But don’t worry, robots and AI won’t replace human rewilders.

Rewilding is best done with lots of people – with everyone involved. Because when communities repair nature, they connect with nature, and this helps foster a lifetime of care – the powerful Māori principle of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship that comes from having a kinship relationship with the natural world.

In the face of climate anxiety, rewilding is providing a huge amount of excitement and hope. In Aotearoa, over 5,000 community groups are now involved with restoring nature through Predator Free. Our Bird Of The Year competition is a national obsession. And when I visit schools, every single kid is onboard with the concept of rewilding – because unlike the important but often boring-seeming concept of sustainability, rewilding projects tearing up roads and returning long lost species and studying nature seem thrilling. 

Volunteers show off trapped possums (Photo: predatorfreenz.org)

So where could our incredible rewilding and ultrawilding projects take us in the next few decades?  What does our world-leading 2050 vision need to thrive and succeed? And what are the opportunities for young New Zealanders?

The stakes are high. If the Predator Free project fails, if we give up removing invasive pest species, the eventual endpoint is empty skies, and the near total destruction of our native flora and fauna.

Scientists estimate that, if left to their destructive ways, pests could wipe out 75% of our reptile, bird, bat, and freshwater fish species. Native forests torn apart and emptied of the native animals vital for their ecosystem functions would eventually collapse and be replaced with gorse and pines.

But if we continue scaling up our rewilding and ultrawilding efforts. If we bring every community, every school, every business onboard. If we partner with iwi and plan hundreds of years into the future. If we ensure continued government funding to keep us on top of the world. If we hit our 2050 goal – and I think we will – the result will be a staggeringly beautiful transformation of our islands. And the ecological momentum required for Aotearoa’s 80,000 unique species to thrive, by themselves.

Imagine vast podocarp forests stretching from coast to coast and connecting every city. Imagine mountain biking between suburbs through mamaku ferns and nikau palms, over streams teaming with eels, and under towering rimu, miro, mataī and tōtara – skyscrapers for birds, epiphytes, fungi, reptiles and insects.

Imagine living in ultrawilded cities, where technology doesn’t crowd nature out, but gives nature a leg-up. Imagine walking among kauri trees to get to school, ducking as robot kererū swoop past on their way to 3D print safe habitats for ruru and tīeke – before real hollows are large enough for comfy homes. Imagine diving into a waterfall on a newly daylighted river on your way home from the office – swimming with kōkopu, as water filtering submarines bubble past below, each filled with tāwiniwini bushes (a relative of blueberries) growing snowberries for afternoon tea. 

Now imagine the enormous new opportunities in education and in ecotourism. Imagine billions of dollars annually in carbon credits. And imagine the phenomenal number of jobs that must be created to make all this happen.

Imagine rewilding as our largest industry, employing millions of New Zealanders – from engineers, scientists and programmers to tree planters, landscapers, environmental educators, mountain bike park creators, birding guides, habitat architects and wildlife doctors. An industry that is additive not extractive. An industry that energises people instead of wearing them out. An industry that helps spread hope and excitement through massively popular wildlife mapping and habitat building competitions. An industry that helps make citizen science part of everyday life. An industry that helps us all become guardians of nature.

THIS is the ultra wild Aotearoa I want to live in. 

How about you?

Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan to Rewild Every City On Earth (Allen & Unwin, $38) is available to purchase at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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