Maungatautari Sanctuary Project 2011

June 2011

An internationally important restoration project is a group effort

Maungatautari is an internationally important restoration project with a goal to remove pests and predators from the mountain forever and restore to the forest a healthy diversity of indigenous plants and animals not seen in our lifetime. Already some remarkable ecological lessons are being learnt.

Maungatautari is a bush-clad volcano that rises above the Waikato just south of Lake Karapiro. It is 3363ha of forest surrounded by farmland. The ecological island is made up of Maori land, private land and a public scenic reserve administered by the Waipa District Council.

The project began in 2002 to build a 47km totally pest proof fence around the forest on Maungatautari. The next step was to eliminate all warm-blooded animal pests within the fence, then to reintroduce threatened species that have been lost.

Interview with Gordon Stephenson – Founding Trustee of the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust :

Our indigenous and endemic species are in desperate straits. Offshore islands are great but people can’t get there to see the remaining species and we have run out of islands. We came up with the idea of mainland islands, by trapping and poisoning.

These are limited because they are porous, so that idea is taken further with a sanctuary where all the predators inside are eradicated apart from species we want.

It is my belief that NZ needs six or seven such sanctuaries of 2000ha or more scattered around the country because that is big enough to hold the full suite of species for each habitat. Then species would be safe and managed in as natural conditions as possible.

We are only just discovering what these conditions are. Within two years the beetle population has trebled in our two enclosures which total 90ha. Since 2002 the weta population has gone up by a factor of at least 12 times and maybe more. The weta are bigger and their sex ratios are getting more even.

We are just beginning to learn and understand what our original ecology was like. Kiwi are putting on weight here faster than anywhere else in the country.

There’s a lot to be learnt by having this area totally free of pests. And we haven’t got the full suite of birds and reptiles yet.

We keep finding things we didn’t know were there, such as Duvaucel’s gecko. (Hoplodactylus duvaucelii). It is the largest living gecko in New Zealand and one of the biggest geckos in the world, attaining sizes of up to160 mm snout-vent length and 120gms in weight. We also discovered a population of Hochstetters frogs.

It is really exciting; we’re also finding plants we didn’t know were there such as red beech.

We are trying to show one way of enabling New Zealand’s endemic and endangered species to survive in the long term in natural conditions.

It is not cheap. We want to introduce kakapo but before we do this we have to work out a way to stop the kakapo climbing the fence. The kakapo recovery programme might cost us $200,000, and because we are a community project not a DoC project, it is difficult. But we are helping highly endangered species survive, so that should be seen as a national cost.

We have a walking track right across the mountain, which is a five to six hour walk or three hours if you run. Three quarters of that is really good, but the last little bit hasn’t been upgraded yet.

There is a circular track in the northern enclosure, and the southern enclosure at Pukeatua has several km of tracks and an aviary.

Our objective is not to be a zoo, it is to have it as natural as we can possibly leave it.

We have a pair of takahe running wild in the southern enclosure, and they are settling into living in the bush, which raises the whole question of what is the natural habitat for takahe. I suspect it is a lowland bush bird and was pushed out to where predator numbers were low.

We also have another pair in the Tautari wetland. They hatched a female chick last year, and this year they have hatched two chicks, which is remarkable. If they all survive, we may have about 5% of the world population of takahe living on Maungatautari.

We have kaka breeding readily, one with five eggs. We have hihi and whitehead, yellow crowned kakariki.

We are hoping to get robins, kokako, saddleback and tuatara. The manawhenua are discussing it, and if available tuatara could move in straight away.

We have worked out the nominal value of volunteer work to be $5million so far. The project has cost a total of $22 million, divided by 3400 ha is $6500/ha.

Two thirds of the land inside the fence is crown reserve vested in the Waipa District Council; of the remainder, two thirds is Maori land, and a third is private land within the fence.

The fence is constantly electronically monitored and maintained. There are 13 pests which we have had to deal with: deer, goats, pigs, cats, hedgehogs, stoats, weasels, ferrets, rats, mice, hares, rabbits and possums.

There are two enclosures – the southern kiwi enclosure is 65ha, the northern kiwi enclosure is 35ha. These are clear and on the main mountain there are a handful of hares currently being dealt with. Mice are now restricted to two very small areas. We are learning an awful lot about mice.

One of the development programmes is developing pest management processes that are species proof, for example, that kakapo can’t get their inquisitive beaks inside.

But even if we temporarily get rid of every mouse, they will come back; they always do. We have to have a response in place if a mouse is detected. We are not happy to keep them just at a low level.

We have eight people working on pests full time, two looking after the fence and three in the office, as well as volunteers.

That’s why we have to have 200 or more volunteers. Regular monitoring of all the monitor stations is done virtually all by volunteers.

Now we are finding tracking tunnels are recording the footprints of skinks and geckos.

Interview with Taotao (Ted) Tauroa – Trustee of the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust :

Ted Tauroa is a dairy farmer at Pukeatua, and his farm backs onto the bush. He chairs the Pohara Marae, and has been a trustee since the project started. He has a wetland in a gully with a pond, which used to be the farm water supply. There’s a sub enclosure, which has been built for takahe and for getting tuatara established. Ted kindly gifted this area to the project.

The farm is 99ha, of which 94ha is the milking platform; about 300 cows are milked. Ted has a manager on the farm, who helps when he’s not busy with iwi Treaty claims etc.

He is a kaumatua of the Ngati Koroki Kahukura iwi, which has two local marae, one Pohara on the eastern side of the mountain, and another Maungatautari, on the north side.

With 20% of the land within the fence in Maori ownership, Ted was involved from the beginning as he is a trustee of three of the iwi blocks of this land.

He represented the iwi from the beginning as negotiations began about the fence and what it would mean for the owners.

Over the years he had seen the use of 1080 to kill predators after a TB scare on the north side of the mountain in an adjacent deer farm. Deer also escaped into the mountain.

He supported the fencing being built to protect the flora and fauna of the mountain, and as a way to stop poisoning.

About that time he was also a commissioner for the national pest management strategy.

As Maungatautari is one of the largest areas of bush in the country, he wants to see it protected.

He says the fence has been absolutely fantastic, and the best thing has been seeing the huge support from the community, from people from all walks of life.

“It is people working together for a common goal; it has required some very careful management.”

He’s also enjoying seeing the increasing numbers of birds (during our interview kaka were squawking in the background making a racket).

This overflow of birds has happened particularly in the last couple of years, as a kind of compounding effect, particularly with tui, kereru and now kaka.

The wetland is 2km from his house, at the back of the farm. The takahe there have had two chicks this year, and one last year.

Just over the past week at the World Rowing Championships he caught up with whanau from Ngai Tahu, who had loaned them the takahe to put into the wetland.

He was delighted to be able to tell them of the success of the project to date.

He says the negotiations or tomo with the other iwi have been an important part of bringing bird species back to the mountain. It’s a long process building a relationship with the gifting iwi.

This has already occurred with Tuwharetoa which gifted the initial kiwi chicks. Already they have been able to gift chicks back to Tuwharetoa in a reciprocal arrangement.

If it works, the whole country will benefit, he says.

Farming of the edge of Maungatautari is just awesome: you see all the staff and volunteers walking on the back fence, surveying it, repairing it, spraying the line. When there are breaches people come immediately to identify and fix the fence to prevent any influxes of pests too.

Interview with Mark Lammas – Biodiversity Ranger

Mark was a volunteer, and now is a paid employee, managing the kiwi, thanks to the World Wildlife Fund.

He has worked on the project since 2006 and describes himself as a kiwi “Plunket nurse”. He has been banding kiwi, and measuring and weighing them regularly.

It is amazing what happens when predators are out of the mix: the kiwi are taking only 3.5-4 months to get to the safe threshold weight of 1kg, which is two months earlier than recorded elsewhere.

They are reaching adulthood earlier at 2.5-2 years rather than the usual 4-5 years.

There are now 40 kiwi with radio tags, and microchips. We are looking at 20 chicks this season from about five pairs – they lay two batches of eggs. They are absolute breeding machines.

At last count we had eight or nine new birds born this season, and about 12 more on the way. We could well have more than 20 young kiwi this season.

We have exported three kiwi back to Tongariro, which is part of the objective.

We have to be careful to keep a large genetic base, and if we left all kiwi being born now in the sanctuary there would be too much in-breeding. So we are exporting young ones in the hope we will get different genetics back to breed with our finite population. It’s a win: win.

In a matter of two to three decades we should be exporting 100 kiwi a year.

Kaka now free range around the aviary, and are fed there to anchor them.

I have a real passion for nature and the bush; what really attracted me to this particular project was the community support. We are working with some really amazing people who are putting their heart and soul into this project to make it work.

There are quite a number of full-time volunteers, many just retired and a real camaraderie.

The project was David Wallace’s idea, and his passion is contagious.

Our target is to get a founding population of kiwi of about 60 birds.