New Zealanders have been first at many things. First to climb Mt Everest, first to give women the right to vote, and first to invent the pavlova (this may be argued by an Australian or two). They may also be the first to create ‘islands on land’.
That is, ‘ecological islands’ on land, anyway.
Last month we discussed the successful release of Malherbe’s parakeet (Karkariki) on Maude Island, New Zealand. We also explained how useful real islands are in rescuing species from the brink of extinction. These islands provide a refuge for rare and endangered wildlife once the invasive pest species are removed.
During 2002, a group of six men decided to apply this concept to New Zealand’s mainland. In the Waikato region, famous for its river, dairy farms and glow worm caves, the town mayor, three local dairy farmers, and a conservator from the Department of Conservation (DOC) got together and established the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust.
Maungatautari is actually an extinct volcano (hence the good soil) surrounded by hundreds of hectares of dairy farms. It really does look like an island in a sea of dairy pasture!
While the view of the volcano remains as beautiful as ever, in recent years the local people began to notice that the forest had become silent.
The calls of the Kiwi were gone from the night air. The melodic songs of the Kokako were absent from the day, and the calls of the Kaka and Karkariki had ceased. The quieter reptile and frog species had also disappeared, and many of the native tree species were sick. Less than 200 years ago, the forest on Maungatautari supported a rich biodiversity of native birds, frogs, reptiles and insects; a natural orchestra or chirps, calls and other songs.
So, who, or what were the cause of this decimation? Something cute, furry and introduced!
That’s right, mammalian pest species introduced to New Zealand since European settlement – stoats and possums in particular. While possums fit into the Australian ecosystem, they have become a voracious destroyer of New Zealand’s trees.
Possums are omnivorous and enjoy their veges, they like to eat a few leaves! In Australia many of the native trees have high tannin content in their leaves. Tannins taste bad, they’re a poison and deter hungry possums. But New Zealand’s trees never evolved these tannin concentrations, so the possums can eat till they’re full. But worse still, the possums in New Zealand also developed a taste for native bird eggs.
Stoats, on the other hand aren’t interested in the leaves. They’re a carnivore and a relentless predator of many of New Zealand’s bird and reptile species. Just like New Zealand’s trees weren’t prepared for the possums, the birds and reptiles of New Zealand never faced a predator as efficient as the stoat and have suffered severely.
The native animals and plants of New Zealand are a smorgasbord for both of these pests allowing them flourish unabated.
Aerial drops of poison, poison bait stations, trapping and shooting are used to try and control the numbers of possums and stoats. However, they are tough animals and quickly recolonise areas from where they were eradicated.
Pest proof fencing has been the break through step for Maungatautari. The Trust is using a special fence to transform Maungatautari into an ecological island, separated from the surrounding landscape. The long term goal is to eradicate all pests from within the reserve, leaving an ecological island without the invasive possums and stoats.
So far, 47 km of pest proof fencing has been built around the forest perimeter of Maungatautari, enclosing the 3,400 hectares of forest within. While the eradication of pests continues for the whole forest, two small pest free enclosures have been constructed on either side of the mountain. These enclosures have made it possible to reintroduce several bird species, including 23 North Island Brown Kiwi, two breeding pairs of Takahe (once believed to be extinct), and 14 Kaka (large, native parrots).
Several species of native skinks and geckos have also been released. The endangered Hochstetter’s frog was going to be reintroduced but a small population (~10 individuals) of this species has recently been found on Maungatautari, so the reserve will facilitate the natural recovery of this endemic population.
The eradication of pests and re-introduction of rare and endangered wildlife is well underway. The Trust is set to restore the natural and historic heritage of Maungatautari. Now that some species are re-establishing inside the fence, the reserve has already opened up opportunities for ecological research and education – contributing further to our understanding of biodiversity and its conservation.
The Maungatautari story provides evidence for the benefits of ecological ‘land’ islands, but perhaps the most impressive message is that Maungatautari was started by a small group of individuals who wanted to make a difference.
Maungatautari is not entirely owned and funded by the New Zealand government. It is comprised of Maori, private and public owned land. The $14m used for the main perimeter fence, the two smaller enclosures, recreational tracks and tree top lookouts has been raised by the efforts of the Trust and local community.
Maungatautari is a community based ecological restoration effort – big picture stuff at a local scale – inspiring isn’t it?
If you would like to visit the reserve, make a donation, or simply find out more, then check out their website.