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A little miracle

An ecosanctuary in Wellington is turning back the clock. Julie Haines explores Zealandia.

It’s a sobering story. Eight hundred years ago New Zealand was covered in dense forest brimming with unique birds such as the enormous moa, the mighty Haast’s eagle, and the beautiful huia.

Then people arrived, accompanied by rats, rabbits, deer, pigs, possums and stoats. The birds were hunted, the trees destroyed to make way for farmland and towns. Introduced plants enveloped the forest that was left. At least 51 bird species became extinct, and many others were at risk of suffering the same fate.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and a little miracle occurred in Wellington. The Karori Sanctuary Trust was formed and erected an 8.6 kilometre predator fence around the Karori reservoir. The 225 hectare sanctuary within it was called Zealandia, and it is the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary.

Zealandia is a work of passion for the dedicated team who run it, including over 500 volunteers. I joined a two-hour tour guided by Rory, who loves the sanctuary so much that when he is not guiding tours in an official capacity he is often seen along the tracks sharing his vast knowledge with passersby in his free time.

As we entered Zealandia through the pest control fence, checking our bags for stowaways, I felt as though we were entering Jurassic Park and half expected a dinosaur to walk past. The forest covers such a vast area it’s astounding to think you’re in the middle of a capital city. There’s no traffic noise or unsightly high-rises, just the sound of kākā and other birds, and verdant green as far as the eye can see.

Rory explained how New Zealand’s wildlife evolved over millions of years without mammals as predators. The Haast’s eagle hunted by sight, so its prey learned to avoid capture by freezing or hiding. When humans introduced mammals that hunted by smell, the native wildlife didn’t stand a chance.

Zealandia’s 500-year plan is to restore this little slice of New Zealand to its pre-human state, though unfortunately without the moa and other extinct wildlife. “Obviously we don’t have the Jurassic Park technology,” lamented Rory.

Although it’s only a couple of decades into this Herculean task, Zealandia has already transformed Wellington from a biologically poor state into one of the few cities in the world where biodiversity is actually increasing. Zealandia has reintroduced to the area 18 species of native wildlife, some of which haven’t been seen on mainland New Zealand for over a century. And happily the 2.2 metre high fence that stops predators from getting in is not a barrier for the birds within — the whole city has seen an increase in birds that were previously elusive.

We walked only a few metres into the sanctuary to have our first encounter with wildlife — a native species of stick insect which had left the security of his bush to stretch across a fence. Further along a weta was doing the same thing.

We heard a grey warbler and a tui singing, and Rory explained that if you see a tui with its mouth open but there is no sound, it’s because tui can sing above the range of human hearing.

Across Zealandia’s lower lake we saw a large macrocarpa tree that was a hive of activity covered in kāruhiruhi (pied shag) nests. When I visited the lake was being drained to get rid of the introduced perch that are disrupting the delicate balance of the water system, and then native fish will be returned.

As we walked deeper into the forest we watched a flock of pōpokotea (whiteheads) flitting around. We were lucky enough to spot tīeke (saddleback), toutouwai (North Island robin), pīwakawaka (fantail) and one of the threatened hihi (stitchbirds) all resting on the same tree.

There is plenty of food for wild birds at Zealandia but food stations with parrot food and sugar water entice the kākā closer to the walking tracks. Zealandia released seven pairs of kākā in the early 2000s and the population has taken off, with over a thousand kākā born in the sanctuary and banded since then. They regularly fly over Parliament and the harbour — Rory says one was even seen as far afield as Pūkaha Mount Bruce in the Wairarapa. We stood for several minutes watching juvenile kākā pulling bark off branches with their strong beaks to search for grubs, and cautiously drinking from the sugar water stations while korimako (bellbirds) watched.

Later our tour group stood on a suspension bridge looking down on a gully that was once farmland but is now covered in lush native bush. Suddenly a flicker of movement caught someone’s eye and we stared in awe at a rare leucistic tui — they have grey feathers due to a lack of pigmentation.

My main reason for visiting Zealandia however was to spot New Zealand’s “living fossil”, the tuatara. Although nocturnal, tuatara come out of their nests to bask in the sun during the daytime. We saw one peeking his head out during our 10am tour, then returned after lunch when the air temperature was warmer and we were elated to find around a dozen more on the bank alongside the track. The reptiles sat completely still but were mesmerising to watch.

Tuatara are the only living members left of the Rhynchocophalian order that otherwise died out around 65 million years ago, the same time as dinosaurs. We saw the remains of some tuatara eggs sitting on the bank. Rory explained that tuatara mate in summer, take nearly a year to lay their eggs, and then the eggs take another year to hatch. Tuatara are solitary creatures and don’t rear their young.

Zealandia is also home to at least 150 Little Spotted Kiwi, the smallest of the kiwi species. At one point Little Spotted Kiwi were extinct on mainland New Zealand, but 40 birds were relocated to Zealandia from Kapiti Island in the early 2000s and since then numbers have slowly increased. They are often spotted on Zealandia’s night tours, along with ruru (morepork), glow worms, leaf-veined slugs, and the prehistoric and vulnerable Maud Island frog.

It’s not often you have the chance to see so many threatened and at-risk species in the wild in one day.

Zealandia is not only giving our endemic species a better chance at a future, it also offers people a rare insight into how this country used to be, sleepy tuatara, playful kākā and all.

Getting there:

Zealandia ecosanctuary is located at the end of Waiapu Road, Karori, Wellington. There is a free shuttle for Zealandia visitors from Wellington i-SITE on Wakefield Street and next to the Cable Car at the Botanic Gardens. Open daily (except Christmas Day). For more info see www.visitzealandia.com.

© Copyright Julie Haines 2021

TRANQUILLITY: The Upper Dam at Zealandia. All pictures by Julie Haines unless otherwise stated
TRANQUILLITY: The Upper Dam at Zealandia. All pictures by Julie Haines unless otherwise stated
LUCKY: The rare saddleback (tieke) was sighted at Zealandia. Picture by Brendan Doran
Butterfly beauty: Plenty of room here for a colourful butterful and a bee, at Zealandia.
SUCCESS: More than 1000 kaka have been born at Zealandia since seven pairs were released into the sanctuary in th early 2000s. Picture by Steve Attwood