Graeme Atkins was a preschooler when he first joined his father on a winter possum-hunting trip in the Raukūmara Range. They picked their way along icy rivers, laying cyanide paste, and at the end of the day, found a bank under which to light a fire and make a mattress from dry fern. “You could see 20 or 30 blue ducks every day,” he remembers.
Some 50 years later, Atkins looks back across decades of keeping watch over the Raukūmara forest as a Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger. He’s seen the devastation inflicted by a suite of introduced pests: deer stripping bark from trees and mowing down the undergrowth, possums devouring the canopy and killing ancient forest giants, and goats, pigs, rats and stoats feeding on plants and birds to the point of local extinction. Today, even finding a whio feather is exciting, because it is a hopeful sign the endemic river ducks are managing to hold on.
In November, Atkins was among a group of people who laid down sacred stones at the Tapuaeroa River, at the foot of Mount Hikurangi, as part of a blessing of the $34 million Raukūmara Pae Maunga restoration project announced in August. Tears flowed freely as members of Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, the iwi living on the eastern and western flanks of their ancestral ngahere (forest), gathered at dawn to mark the beginning of a process of regeneration many had worked towards for decades.
The rugged backbone of the Raukūmara Range forms the northern end of the North Island’s main mountain chain. Its uncompromising, steep terrain cleaves the East Cape. Once covered in almost impenetrable podocarp-broadleaf bush—tōtara towering among rimu, rātā, tawa, hīnau, rewarewa, kahikatea and beech—the Raukūmara harboured thriving populations of whio, kākā, kererū and Hochstetter’s frog. The fossil record shows kākāpō once roamed these forests, and there are still traces of the parrots’ track-and-bowl systems that the males would build to attract a mate. The forests’ unmarked ancestral trails and place names are mentioned in iwi histories reaching back across centuries.
Almost three decades ago, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou embarked on the first hīkoi across the Raukūmara to reconnect with the ngahere through shared tribal stories. Back in 1993, Tui Aroha Warmenhoven, now the chair of Te Rūnanganui o Ngāti Porou, joined a group that spent 10 days walking along a path once taken by one of her ancestors, 18th-century Ngāti Porou chief Umuariki.
At first, this was a trail of war, she says. But then it became a trail of love. Umuariki walked it to visit his granddaughter who had married into the family of a Whānau-ā-Apanui chief on the other side of the cape. “Then it became a trail of trade and whanaungatanga and whakapapa, and that’s what it is today. Our ties have been strengthened through our love for the place. We know we have to work together [to restore it].”
Warmenhoven walked the ara tīpuna across the Raukūmara again in March 2020, just before New Zealand went into COVID-19 lockdown. She remembers how, back in 1993, the group would be awakened each morning before the dawn chorus by elders chanting karakia.
“Then came the birdsong and it was ear-splitting, but we took it for granted. I would never have believed that 30-odd years later, I would go into a dead silence. That was frightening. This huge forest is empty, it’s collapsing.”
During her first hīkoi, she remembers an undergrowth so thick, the group had to cut their way with machetes. “Jump forward to the hīkoi in 2020, there’s nothing. A bit of horopito but mostly barren. It’s a deadscape.”
A day before the blessing, iwi members gathered at Rauru marae near Ruatoria. They shared stories of the pain of watching the forest break down before their eyes and of the mahi taumaha ahead—the heavy work of restoring a forest that has been neglected for so long.
Atkins took me to a spot on the banks of the Waiapu River to look across its catchment to the Raukūmara, with a view towards Ngāti Porou’s sacred mountain Hikurangi and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui’s Whanokao.
“The forest was once our weathermaker,” he says. “It steadied our water supply, it was our food cupboard and pharmacy, but these relationships with people have been long lost.”
As the canopy thinned and the understorey disappeared, the forest lost its capacity to intercept heavy rainfalls, swelling rivers with floods and sediment. Along the river and closer to the coast, the repercussions are obvious.
In the Waiapu catchment, 80 per cent of coastal forests were clear-felled between 1890 and 1920 to make way for farms. The soft sedimentary rocks, no longer held in place by roots, soon gave way in massive slips. As the forests in the deep mountain ranges began to weaken, ever more sediment was released into waterways. “For its catchment size, the Waiapu is now one of the world’s most sediment-laden rivers,” says Atkins.
During the 1980s, long droughts and the removal of farm subsidies brought farmers to their knees. Then Cyclone Bola hit in 1988, and the soft-rock country between the bays at Tolaga and Tokomaru lost 70 per cent of pasture soil. “This country was just never meant to be left this exposed.”
Warmenhoven says the disconnection between the people and the land goes back even further, “obviously because the land was taken by the Crown”.
While the hapū with mana whenua over the Raukūmara tried to maintain an association and a sense of kaitiakitanga, they had lost the mana to be involved and to make decisions. Then, the clearing and burning of the coastal forest “disassociated us culturally from the ngahere”, says Warmenhoven.
She is hopeful the restoration project will not only return the mauri of the forest, but of its people, particularly among the young people who took part in the hīkoi. “It’ll be their vision, their aspirations and their values that will carry this forward into the future. That will be the measuring stick for them and the future. It provides hope and a beacon of light for the next generations to come.”
What we know
The numbers of introduced mammals are out of control. Possums and red deer arrived relatively late in the Raukūmara Range, during the 1950s, followed by goats in the 1970s. Initially, helicopter deer hunting kept the population in check, but deer numbers increased rapidly when aerial hunting became uneconomical. Rob Whitbourne, of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, says deer-recovery operators have reported a 20 per cent decrease in carcass weight over the past five years, suggesting that “even the pests are skinny now” because there’s no longer enough food for them.
Atkins remembers stories of elders being surprised when they saw their first possums near Te Araroa and had no idea what they were. The rugged terrain and remoteness of the main ranges mean that large parts of the Raukūmara never had any possum control. Possum trappers working on the periphery of the northern Raukūmara report 40 per cent trap rates during the first night of new trap lines being set. Monitoring data from 16 sites across the Raukūmara show that between 2010 and 2018, possums were everywhere, covering 90 per cent of the area at moderate to extremely high population densities.
The damage introduced mammals wreak on the canopy and understorey of the forest leads to a cascade of consequences for native birdlife and river ecology.
Deer eat saplings and shrubs, preventing forest regeneration. During a survey in November 2017, Atkins counted 200 dead tōtara before he stopped because it “just got too depressing”. While possums kill the giant trees by feeding on the canopy, deer mow through the forest’s understorey, in some areas to the point of local extinction for certain plants. Any emerging saplings disappear quickly, and once the seed bank is depleted, there is little chance of regrowth. Aerial and ground culling of deer will not be enough to allow undergrowth to recover.
In some parts, only mountain horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) grows in the understorey, as deer don’t like the taste of it. Even the highly toxic tutu (Coriaria arborea), usually a robust pioneering plant, no longer thrives.
The change to the plant communities affects birds and other wildlife, as they lose both habitat and food.
Native birds are mostly gone. There is no rat or stoat control across 99 per cent of the Raukūmara. Data from 1992 to 2011 from a southern Raukūmara site that once supported a healthy population of whio show the birds’ numbers had fallen to unsustainable levels by 2011. A 2015 survey didn’t find any birds.
Whio, once common in the 1960s, are now locally extinct across the main rivers of the Raukūmara. Kākā numbers have declined since the early 2000s, in contrast to the birds’ “nationally recovering” status elsewhere. Only one translocated kōkako population, moved from Te Urewera, survives in an intensively pest-controlled site protected under a Ngā Whenua Rāhui kawenata (a 25-year covenant on Māori-owned land). North Island brown kiwi are thought to be locally extinct across most of the Raukūmara.
The river is choked with dirt. The damage to the canopy and understorey limits how much rain the forest can catch, which in turn leads to erosion and more runoff into rivers that have their catchments within the Raukūmara.
The only river that has been substantially studied is the Waiapu. Research shows this carries 35 million tonnes of suspended sediment to the sea each year. This is among the highest rates of river sedimentation in the world.
“If the understorey is eaten out every time it rains, less rain is being soaked up,” says Whitbourne. “The flood will be faster and more extreme, more water is going to come down, and then when it dries out, it’s going to dry out quicker.”
As the Waiapu has carried more and more sediment, its bed has risen and widened. New channels formed and are now undermining and eroding the banks. More land is lost. Driving along the Waiapu, Atkins stops near a massive slip where the bank has crashed into the river bed. Further along, the river whips up a dust storm intense enough to obscure the view of its opposite bank.
How we fix it
Tackle the challenges on a landscape scale. The $34 million funding for the restoration of the Raukūmara is the result of many years of “iwi activation”. It’s also an example of a project led by iwi and hapū in a partnership between Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and between the iwi and DOC and the Crown.
New Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan attended the dawn blessing as her first official engagement on her own home turf, and later described the project as an example of “the changing face of the Crown”.
The money is put aside for an aerial 1080 operation over 120,000 hectares to control possums, rats and mustelids, followed by expanded deer and goat control over 150,000 hectares to reduce populations by 90 per cent over the next three to four years. While the funding has been secured, Whitbourne says the 1080 operation is yet to be approved. “That’s a call for the iwi to make together.”
Employ local people and develop local expertise. The funding will also bring new jobs—23 full-time positions and 18 jobs for seasonal deer cullers. “It’s not just about getting rid of pests,” says Whitbourne. “It’s about whānau working on the ground. We wouldn’t want to do something that gets rid of pests but employs no one—serves a conservation purpose, but not the people.”
The plan is to employ local people in pest control, ecological monitoring, restoration work and governance roles. The iwi set up cadetships “where our own become managers or technical experts and do the mahi”. The hapū that hold mana whenua over particular parts of the land can put names forward for people interested in being part of the restoration project.
Bring the birds back. The project proposal includes plans to identify sites that should be managed intensively, either to restore remnant populations of taonga species identified by the iwi—North Island brown kiwi, whio, kōkako, kākā and tītī (grey-faced petrel)—or to eventually reintroduce locally extinct birds.
Connect conservation workers with the land’s cultural legacy. When Ngāti Porou went through the Treaty settlement process between 2008 and 2010, there were calls for all conservation land within the rohe to be returned to the iwi. The final settlement included smaller reserves, but not the Raukūmara. “It hasn’t returned to its people—not yet,” says Warmenhoven. “That’s a work in progress.”
But the restoration project will shift its approach to include mātauranga Māori and employ a process known as indigenous biocultural monitoring. The aim is to use ancestral knowledge as an induction for anyone working on the project to reconnect with stories and traditional knowledge about plants and animals. Deer cullers will receive biodiversity training so they become forest observers, and there will be more monitoring sites to track the health of different forest types and river catchments. As the forest begins to recover, the people will rebuild their connection to their homelands, says Warmenhoven. “Ko te mea nui, ko te Raukūmara,” she says. “The most important thing is the Raukūmara.”