Eastern Whio Link

June 2022

Communities banding together to protect the highly endangered native New Zealand whio – the blue duck.

Hunters, anglers, farmers, mana whenua, and others in nearby communities in the Waioeka Gorge have banded together to protect the highly endangered native New Zealand whio – the blue duck. They have laid extensive trapping lines along the remote Waioeka River and adjacent streams to control predators, mostly stoats but also rats. 


Inspiring their work are two old university friends Sam Gibson and Geoff McLaughlan, who were shocked to see the dramatic decline in whio numbers and decided to do something about it. Their project quickly gathered momentum and developed partnerships with seven educational organisations, and now over 80 active volunteers work alongside Sam and Geoff. The project was recognised in the MPI-supported 2021 Biosecurity Award, as winner of the BioHeritage Challenge Community Award category.


Although most of us these days prefer the convenience of paying by credit card or EFTPOS, there are at least some still familiar with the blue-hued $10 note. One side of the $10 bill features the whio – the native New Zealand blue duck that is very rare and threatened; on the other is Kate Sheppard, whose campaign for women’s rights in the 1800s led to New Zealand being the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections (1893). 


Like Kate, the whio is true taonga and very much a New Zealand icon, being our only endemic mountain duck, and one of just three true riverine duck species worldwide, making the whio even rarer than some species of kiwi. Once widespread throughout New Zealand, whio are now in serious decline, with fewer than 3000 remaining (at current estimates). 


The story takes us to the wilds of the Waioeka Gorge, situated between Gisborne and Opotiki. The rugged landscape here is familiar to two keen hunters and trout fishermen, mates from university days when they studied environmental science. They were chuffed recently to learn their Eastern Whio Link that aims to restore blue duck numbers was a finalist in the BioHeritage Challenge Community category in this year’s New Zealand Biosecurity Awards, staged by the Ministry of Primary Industries.


Not that Sam Gibson or Geoff McLaughlan were keen for the limelight themselves – more so for the 100-plus hunters, anglers, farmers, other landowners, the mana whenua/hāpu, in particular at Mātāwai Marae in the Waioeka Gorge, and others in the surrounding communities, who are enthusiastic in their on-going support of the project. 


The long-term aim of the Eastern Whio Link is to protect and grow the population of whio from Te Urewera all the way to East Cape. 


In just two short years, as a direct result of the work done the existing whio population of the four pairs of adults found in the gorge at the start of the project has tripled with total of 20 chicks being hatched. “It’s pretty incredible that we were able to achieve breeding success in our first year,” says Sam. “It’ll be another year before these juveniles enter the breeding population, but we know that ongoing predator control will ensure they make it, and that even more chicks will be successfully hatched as the seasons go by.”


Sam, who is Te Tairāwhiti/East Coast Catchments Coordinator for Landcare Trust, says whio numbers in the Waioeka area have been in decline over the past 40 years for two reasons. “River flooding destroys their nests and then what survives is devasted by predation, mostly stoats, during their two crucial life stages – when they are nesting and when they moult and are unable to fly. While we have no control over flooding events, we knew we could do something to control the predators before it was too late.”


As had proven to be a success in controlling stoats, rats and other predators in other areas of the country, the group laid a single line of traps along both sides of the Waioeka River where whio had been sighted. “By significantly reducing predator populations throughout the gorge, we have been able to protect the original pairs, and take the first step in enabling these 20 chicks to be recruited into the breeding population.”


Geoff, who is the Eatern Whio Link project coordinator, a role funded by Tairāwhiti Environment Centre, with support from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), adds that the work is not just helping the whio. “We are also improving the habitat and helping to protect other native species, including the North Island brown kiwi, as well as indigenous bats, both long and short tailed,” he says.  

With 300 donated traps, Eastern Whio Link has established more than 30kms of trap line – enough river to home 30 breeding pairs of whio. The favoured traps are Goodnature A24 self-resetting traps that automatically kill up to 24 prey, one after the other before the gas canister needs to be replaced. “We can set these traps in July and leave them until November,” says Geoff. “This means during this time the pest population is kept under control and there is no need to go out to manage the trap lines during the winter months when there are weather risks.”   

Sam says volunteers from the surrounding community including the marae, farmers on nearby sheep and cattle stations, and schools, along with some sponsorship – mostly in the form of product and services – have allowed the group to manage the trap line. “We started with just eight people and now we have more than 100 active volunteers, including the students that have come on board through our education programme.”

Both Sam and Geoff are enthusiastic and grateful for the additional funding stream that has come from the government-supported Jobs for Nature scheme, which is allowing for paid staff to be recruited to assist with the project.

The aim of the Eastern Whio Link is the ongoing protection of the juvenile whio – the 20 resulting from the first season of hatchings, and their future generations – by expanding the trapping network to include the remaining 25km of whio habitat in the Waioeka area, including stoat control around farmland. “This will not only protect our juvenile population, but also allow them to establish breeding territories of their own,” says Sam.

The Department of Conservation has now also signed agreements allowing whio protection projects to be established in the Ruatahunga (north of Gisborne), and Eastern Whio Link hopes to be in a position to extend into this area in the near future to achieve the end goal of establishing one interconnected whio population from Te Urewera through to the East Cape.

Sponsorship to date has come from Central Helicopters Opotiki which flys Sam, Geoff and their volunteers into the more remote areas, as well as Radix Nutrition which provides freeze dried meals to fuel them – and for the java jolt required by many in the often pre-dawn start out in the bush, there is the support of Dog & Gun Coffee. 

The Eastern Whio Link also has close working relationships with Gisborne District Council; the Department of Conservation; Hunters for Conservation; landowners at Koranga, Journeys End, Wairata and Moanui stations; the educational institutes of Tairāwhiti Enviro School, Turanga Ararau, Toi Ohomai Tauranga and the Eastern Institute of Technology Gisborne campus. Sam and Geoff also credit exposure in the media – both mainstream and social – for helping to create awareness and draw in support, most recently in NZ Life & Leisure magazine.