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Illustration by Toby Morris
Illustration by Toby Morris

OPINIONSocietyMay 8, 2021

Once a biodiversity basket case, Wellington today is the wind beneath our birds’ wings

Illustration by Toby Morris
Illustration by Toby Morris

We can stand back as the predators we brought with us wipe out our found-nowhere-else-on-earth island evolution, or do something about it, writes Paul Ward, founder of Capital Kiwi.

When Covid marooned us in our homes, the traffic stopped. In the silence we noticed the birds. Every morning a tūī provided the birdcall for our Newtown backyard. My daughters were convinced that he was mixing ‘Supalonely’ and sea shanties into his playlist of R2-D2 clicks and whirs. The tūī – white cravat bobbing – sung us a world beyond lockdown. 

We love our birds. In te ao Māori the manu are kin. Our sports teams, defence forces, and selves, are known as Kiwis. Like the bird we’re tough, proud, shy and weirdly evolved here. It was a kiwi shedding a tear that symbolised our collective grief following the mosque attack. It wasn’t a laser possum that was the people’s choice in the flag debate. Our birds are key to our identity and place in the world.

But in the light of the number of our manu struggling for survival in 21st Century Aotearoa, this pride looks passive, careless even. Our wildlife leads the per capita medal table no one wants to: “threatened with extinction”. 

Who cares? Who are the kaimanaaki, the carers? Isn’t protecting them the job of the Department of Conservation? The Predator Free 2050 goal, launched in 2016, targets the introduced predators – rats, possums, mustelids – that have the greatest impact on our native wildlife. Sir Paul Callaghan called it Aotearoa’s “moon shot”. In 2020 DOC released a strategy to get there.

My kids think kākā, tūī and kārearea are normal’: Estella Ward and kākā. Photo: supplied

Protecting te taiao (nature) wins near-unanimous approval, but for most New Zealanders it’s not apparent how they can help. Today there’ll be more New Zealanders scratching an Instant Kiwi than looking after the taonga. We have become aloof to the sanctity of our nature. But don’t freak out at the immensity of the challenge. A teaser for what’s possible when citizens get their act together as guardians is a city described 30 years ago as a biodiversity “basket case”: Wellington.

Wellington’s old names testified to a place of manu abundance. Paehuia was a ridge above where the prime minister’s residence is now. In the wind and cloud the bird must have been mystical to encounter, with its Hotere-black clerical robes and tail feathers dipped in mana. Huia Farm is down in Ōhariu Valley. Kaharore – aka Karori – was the place for snaring birds. Tarikākā – Mt Kaukau – was where kākā parrots rested. 

By the 20th Century all these manu were absent from their namesakes. There was no afternoon briefing from Dr Bloomfield to focus attention as they were depredated, and evicted from the hills they’d called home since Tāne Mahuta created them. They were simply gone. 

By the 1990s, when I went to high school and university in the city, barely the names remained; and the only birds were introduced pigeons, sparrows and blackbirds. Native nature was something you went somewhere else to experience. The nearest place I could’ve seen kākā resting was Kāpiti Island.

Now, thanks to a combination of spillover from the fenced Zealandia Ecosanctuary, plus decades of council and community efforts, this has changed dramatically. From being on the verge of local extinction, tūī are everywhere; kererū are load testing power lines, kākā are drinking craft nectar on Cuba St, and kārearea (falcon) are scoping pigeon from high-rise ledges. 

Wellingtonians have embraced the return of the manu. On Mākara Peak mountain bikers saddle up to check traps, on Te Kopahou Reserve it’s the petrolheads: 4WD drivers. On Miramar, an army of volunteer reservists are hunting down the last rats towards stage one of Predator Free Wellington. At Mākara School recycling means feeding the rats to the resident tuna (eels). 

A generation ago a community hub might’ve been a rugby or netball club; now sports like biking and running are pursued independently and organised online. Trapping pests, planting trees and maintaining trails are IRL gathering points that enable koha for using a shared space. Research touts benefits to health and civic unity. On social media, people post rat kills but also log nature buzz, and get to meet their neighbours. Trap are sited prominently on trails as care boxes. This is wild whanaungatanga – connectedness.

Every suburb has a reserve or backyard trapping programme. Each has its own trap-box stencil (Predator Free Brooklyn’s is a rat impaled on a wind turbine) and acronym (Mākara Peak’s Katch22, Ōtari’s RAMBO). Manu outnumber people as street art subjects, sprayed as markers of civic bragging rights: the Railway Station food cart’s resident kōrora (penguins); Brooklyn’s kākā scudding down the main road, Newtown’s sunnies-wearing ruru … 

David Attenborough reckons that people will only protect what they care about, and they’ll only care about what they’ve experienced. The challenge is that much of Aotearoa’s wildlife is removed from our experience. 

In Wellington the benefits of Predator Free aren’t conceptual. Encounters with ngā manu are not in a zoo or on an offshore island, but en route to work, while shopping, exercising or at sport. When we hear a tūī mixing backyard melodies with its two voice-boxes, we get why our music awards are the Tūīs. When you surprise a demon grasshopper wētā in the woodpile you see why the Oscar-winning film effects company is called Wētā FX. 

Kākā were reintroduced to Zealandia in 2002. The Wellington kākā flock now numbers several hundred; the parrots have secured digs in pine stumps and roofs of student flats and are regulars hooning through the Town Belt. It’s one of the bird’s biggest wild populations, and helped shift its conservation status from “threatened” to “recovering”. When Garage Project ran a naming contest for the kākā nesting behind the brewery, the winner was “Cortina”.

Illustration: Toby Morris

The manu resurgence in city parks and skies has opened imaginations to a special K: kiwi. Like kākā, adult kiwi are able to fend off most predator threats with their big raking claws; where they get hammered is depredation on chicks before they reach fighting weight. 

As kākā, tūī, kārearea and kererū have shown: provide shelter and food and manage threats, and populations can grow. I’m the founder of Capital Kiwi: the mission to restore kiwi to the hills west of Wellington. With the help of iwi, landowners and community groups, we’ve got 4,400 traps across 24,000ha of farms, forestry, homes and reserves, from Pariwhero (Red Rocks) to Porirua. It’s the largest community-owned mustelid trap network in NZ. We’ve hit all our targets towards establishing a safe nohoanga for kiwi. 

Grassroots efforts are also the foundations of Predator Free Wellington, whose purpose is to rid the city of rats (alongside mustelids and possums). Both projects are umbrella initiatives providing landscape-scale cohesion; their aspirations are only possible because of DIY community mandate.  

It would be overstating Wellington’s turnaround to say it’s become urban nature nirvana. Reversing 180 years of loss doesn’t get moving overnight. Even diehard pastoralists would agree that the colonial haircut took too much ngahere (forest) off the hills. The awa (streams) need attention as desperately as the sewerage pipes. And the balance of survivorship is still tipped against the smaller birds (toutouwai, kākāriki, hihi) in the cat and rat race. 

But remarkably, amid Earth’s Sixth Great Extinction, the city has increased its indigenous biodiversity. Only stumps of giant tōtara and rātā remain, but the birds have inspired care for what’s left, and imbued the scrappy, scrubby, wind-beaten hills with possibility. 

Millennials are having nature encounters unimagined by Boomers, and they’re getting tats to brag about it: ExtINKtion, a native bird tattoo fundraiser, raised $10k for the birbs in 2019. Baselines have shifted.

Old stories are revived: a gecko in your letterbox evokes the harbour’s taniwha origin story. When we get to see tīeke in the flesh, the myth of its saddle-coloured back is evoked: branded by Maui’s reproving hand, red-hot from taming the sun. And new associations are prompted: the tīeke moves along branches like a parkour exponent, and clears grubs from rākau like TJ Perenara passing from a ruck. 

These encounters are portals to think outside ourselves, and a challenge to reimagine our compact with nature. They have been created in a generation or so by people “doing their bit”, in backyards, paddocks and reserves. Capital Kiwi and Predator Free Wellington are not aspirations buried in a Long Term Plan, but strategies that people can already see. 

Join your local Predator Free group, trap, plant native: our birds face a housing crisis too. Consider the impact of our four-legged companions: our manu, ngarara (bugs) and mokomoko (lizards and geckos) are taonga, not free-range pet-food. 

Don’t do it because the press release told you to… Do it for the joy of kākā rollicking down Willis St like every week is Orientation. Do it to meet your neighbours. Do it to defeat the doom scrolling. Do it for the wētāpunga, the God of Ugly Things (and that Aotearoa has a god of ugly things). Do it for kapa haka with a piwakawaka.

Do it because it’s their home too; we know how to look after it, so we ought to. Could you stomach telling your grandkids that we let the animal that we’re named after go extinct? Do it for the heart-tug of seeing a mini T-Rex kiwi footprint in the mud on your farm or reserve track.

We can stand back while the predators we brought with us wipe out our found-nowhere-else-on-earth island evolution, or do something about it. 

My kids think kākā, tūī and kārearea are normal. When kōkako singing up the western suburbs sun, and takahē roaming South Coast hills are normal too, we will have delivered on the promise of that kākā screech above the city. We will have shifted from passive pride to active guardianship of our manu taonga. 

We are the Night’s Watch for kiwi and kōkako. Our Covid response has shown us what we can do collectively if we set our will to it. What if the team of five million was expanded into the team of Tāne’s children? 

Who cares? We do. See you round the traps.

Kia kākā, go kiwi!

In memory of Wellington conservationist Colin Ryder (1946 – 2021). Check out RNZ series Fight for the Wild for more on Aotearoa’s Predator Free mission.

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