Lord of the Rings and little blue penguins

August 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

The geological formations are imposing, the surf is pounding, and the skies are vast. Where the Aorangi Range drops into the Pacific Ocean, you can see why one of New Zealand’s outdoor businesses called itself Earth, Sea & Sky. Not in many countries is almost all of the land that strongly influenced by all three elements. New Zealand, tiny as it is, has one of the world’s longest coastlines at about 14,000 km. Last week, I had the opportunity to see another bit of coast and join a one-day excursion to the South Wairarapa coast, hosted by the Aorangi Restoration Trust.

Following is a photo essay of the day.

The Aorangi Restoration Trust’s vision is to restore the natural heritage values of the Aorangi Forest Park and its private surrounding land. The park still has pockets of important biodiversity and outstanding geographical features. To work against degradation and eventually reintroduce locally extinct species is a grand vision, and when you see how big the park area is you realise just how grand a vision. Kiwi, weka, whio (blue duck) all used to live in the area, and it would be great to be able to restore their habitats and bring them back. “A two to three hundred year plan”, Clive Paton, the Trust’s chairman, says with a smile. A worthwhile plan nonetheless, and the Trust works together with the Department of Conservation, Wellington Regional Council, Forest & Bird, the local Lions Club and local landowners, fishermen and hunters to, initially, manage the predator control (in its Key Native Ecosystem program).

The Trust and affiliated groups and individuals already manage small restoration projects in the park. One of the first plans is the Coastal Buffer Zone Plan, and in association with it Project Penguin, a plan to help bring back in higher numbers the little blue penguins that used to nest along this coast.

And that’s why I’m there, together with two more members of the team that has been involved with blue penguin research on Matiu/Somes Island in the Wellington Harbour. Since we’ve been doing fieldwork and ongoing monitoring of the blue penguins on Matiu/Somes for years, the Aorangi Trust people and our group have started mutual visits and exchange of experiences and knowledge.

So, bright eyed and bushy tailed, at 7 am we (Ros, Vince and myself) were headed from Wellington to Palliser Bay, via Featherston, to meet up with the people involved with the Trust and to explore the coastline for signs of penguins and put out penguin boxes and predator traps together.

The car was full of the usual gossip and chatter about penguins, predator control, and geology, and I was leafing through a book on the geological features of the Wairarapa coast that Vince had brought along.

Heading to the coastline of the Aorangi Range.
Photo from Reading the Rocks: A Guide to Geological Features of the Wairarapa Coast , by Lloyd Homer and Phil Moore (1989).

We arrived a little early, and decided to have a look around the Putangirua Pinnacles camp site (well, to use the toilet, really). The “badlands erosion” of the Pinnacles has created an amazing landscape, which attracts many visitors to the Wairarapa. The Pinnacles have become even more of a tourist attraction since they were the location for the Dimholt Road, where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli ride along in The Return of the King to meet the Army of the Dead. Definitely worthwhile to come back and explore the walks around the Pinnacles.

The iconic colours of the Department of Conservation (DOC) signs blend into the landscape, which here, as in many places, is characterised by the invasive gorse. Putangirua Pinnacles camp site.

But after that short touristy stint in the cold air, it’s off to do some work:

After a cheerful introduction round, it’s time to read the map. The Aorangi Project Penguin people show the Matiu/Somes penguin people the scope of the plans to restore the Aorangi Forest Park and its coast line.

Every conservation project in New Zealand needs to begin with the control of introduced predators, such as stoats, ferrets, rats, or feral cats. So, first stop is at the trap line, and a Wellington Regional Council representative shows us how to set the traps.

Next stop is the Te Humenga Dunes, protected by a conservation covenant only since 2009. These dunes are among the most important dunes on the North Island for their biological values. The Te Humenga dunes are among the most intact remaining dune ecosystems. We are to put in some penguin nesting boxes and some more predator traps.

Morning tea and our truck load of penguin boxes at Te Humenga.

GPSing the sites. Te Humanga Dunes.

As we are heading towards the fishing village of Ngawi, we pass a memorial to the victims of a shipwreck. Such shipwreck memorials, as this one to the victims of the Zuleika, dot the New Zealand coastline. New Zealand’s long rocky coastline has seen more than 2000 wrecks since the 1790s.

Later we were looking for signs of penguin activity at Cape Palliser and putting in two experimental penguin boxes. And then a very Kiwi thing happened … a surfer came jogging around the corner, out of nowhere, with his surfboard.

Looking back at Whatarangi Bluff in the long shadows of the late afternoon light, just before finishing the day off & haeding to Lake Ferry for a drink at the hotel. There have been many problems with this stretch of road and coastline because of coastal erosion. Apparently several houses in the fishing village of Ngawi have slipped into the sea over the years. As a local described the wild and exposed Palliser coast: “Yep, she’s a moving coastline”.

Heading back home to Wellington & looking back onto an interesting and wonderful day. The long, straight Wairarapa roads. You go straight, until you go left or right.

We had a day rich with new experiences of New Zealand conservation work. About a dozen or so of us spent the day together exchanging stories and much more, while doing hands-on work out in the country. What will stay most with me is the powerful landscape, the infectious enthusiasm and motivation of the people, and the generosity — both in sharing knowledge and food and drink.

What has also impressed me again is just how important, large and lively the role of community-driven conservation projects is in New Zealand. So many people are willing to work on restoration and conservation at their own cost — investing with time and money.

This model of a strong integration of community-run projects might be a good model to think about one of the main problems conservation work and the environmental movement faces in so many parts of the world: the clash between government-enforced environmental laws and the needs of local communities. A strong and wide network of government, non-governmental and local groups as well as individuals in addressing environmental problems might help increase conservation successes and prevent crisis situations such as what is currently happening with India’s tiger reserves.

India’s supreme court has recently issued a ban on tourism in all core tiger habitats, in disregard of the local communities and livelihoods that have been sustained around the tourism within these parks for decades. This case is a good example of just how enmeshed human and natural communities are. The tourist guides not only guided tourists but also have been crucial in volunteer conservation work within the parks. Because of such many complex interaction, the order to keep tourists away from tiger habitats, many conservationists fear, will actually endanger the tigers more.

Disregarding human communities and their needs never has been a way forward in conservation. A model as at work in New Zealand of close cooperation between government and community-run projects can support communities and activate volunteers, rather than destroy communities. Our global environment is so degraded that every single bit of volunteer work, and every single powerful bit of local knowledge, is needed. There is no pure state of nature on this planet. Our ecosystems are complex networks within various habitats of human-animal interactions — each with their own but also deeply connected lifeworlds and both in need of the reverence for life.
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With thanks to the Aorangi Restoration Trust
© Angi Buettner 2012

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More things:
Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of reverence for life 
Aorangi Restoration driven by community — Department of Conservation media release
Key Native Ecosystem Program
Putangirua Pinnacles — Aorangi Forest Park
Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand — Shipwrecks
The Guardian — Tiger population of India facing ‘total disaster’ due to tourism ban

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