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‘A true kaitiaki’

‘He has ignited a passion in so many people to cherish our country’s flora’
ENVIRONMENT WARRIOR: Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins has won the Loder Cup, the most prestigious conservation award in New Zealand. It was presented to him by Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage in Gisborne yesterday. From left are Marijke Warmenhoven, with Rere Moana Warmenhoven in front, Minister Sage, Mr Atkins, his wife Makere and daughter Kimiora. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell

by Matai O’Connor

New Zealand’s most prestigious conservation award, the Loder Cup, was presented to East Coast “environment warrior” Graeme Atkins yesterday.

Doing the honours was the Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage.

“I never thought in a million years that I would be awarded it,” Department of Conservation East Coast ranger Mr Atkins said.

He knows the history of the Loder Cup and that it has been awarded to people he considers “giants of conservation”.

When he was first told about the award a few months ago he thought they might have got the wrong person.

The presentation was meant to be in August but was postponed because of Covid-19.

Instead, Mr Atkins received the award at the Gisborne District Council chambers, surrounded by his whanau, supporters from Ngati Porou and those who have worked with him at the Department of Conservation (DoC).

“It feels awesome to see all these people,” he said. “A lot of them have had my back around the Raukumara funding.”

Ms Sage referenced this when she made the presentation, saying Mr Atkins’ advocacy for restoring the forests of the Raukumara Range had helped secure a record $34 million investment in Te Raukumara Pae Maunga project.

But, “this is not just an award for me’, Mr Atkins said. “It is all of theirs, it’s about sharing the love.

“The mahi we do is not ego mahi, it’s for everybody and the sooner people realise that, the better,” Mr Atkins said.

He thanked all those who supported him throughout his conservation journey, those who nominated him and those he has worked with.

In presenting Mr Atkins (Ngati Porou) with the cup, Ms Sage said his contribution to conservation “goes well above and beyond his employment”.

“The Loder Cup was first donated in 1926 to encourage and honour New Zealanders who work to investigate, promote, retain and cherish our indigenous flora. This ethos resonates throughout Graeme’s life and work.

“Through his passion for taonga and rongoa, Graeme has made an outstanding contribution to the conservation of Aotearoa’s native plants.

“His protection of very rare plants, such as the white kakabeak/ngutukaka, the native iris mikoikoi and dactylanthus on the East Coast has been vital to plant conservation in a region which is relatively under-studied.

“His advocacy for restoring the health of the forests of the Raukumara Range has helped secure a record $34 million investment in Te Raukumara Pae Maunga project.

“It is a partnership between Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngati Porou and DOC to control deer, goats, possums and other pests over 150,000 hectares to protect the Raukumara forests, ensure species such as whio/blue duck, kaka, kereru, and Hochstetter’s frog can thrive once again, and strengthen ahi kaa for manawhenua.”

Mr Atkins learned rongoa (medicine) from his grandmother and credits his passion for plants to his tohunga ancestor.

He continues this hereditary interest by running rongoa classes and caring for a rongoa garden.

“He is humble and compassionate, has strong relationships with Maori and has ignited a passion in so many people to cherish our country’s flora.

“He is a true kaitiaki for indigenous biodiversity,” said Ms Sage.

Mr Atkins was nominated by the East Coast Hawke’s Bay Conservation Board, with supporting letters from the Longbush Ecological Trust, Massey University, Hikurangi Enterprises, and O2 Landscapes.