Growing places: The eco-warriors fighting for our forests’ future

When East Coast Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins finishes his shift, his work in the forest is far from over.

Atkins, of Ngāti Porou, is an advocate for the restoration of the Raukūmara Conservation Park, north of Gisborne – and dedicates much of his time to raising awareness of the forest’s declining state.

Hundreds of conservation groups work with the Department of Conservation (DoC) while many people work of their own accord, from restoring forests, oceans and coastlines to picking up litter and protecting endangered species.

The Herald spoke to Atkins, alongside others who work in the environment in their free time, about what drives them. While their work varies, the motivating factor is the same – the next generation.

Graeme Atkins: Advocate for the Raukūmara Range

When Atkins was 5, he would go possum-baiting with his father and sister along a river in the Raukūmara Range. As they laid cyanide, there would be “blue ducks galore”. After bunkering down under a bank on a makeshift bed of ferns for the night, they would be woken before dawn by birdsong.

“Honestly, there was no chance of a sleep-in because the birds … an hour before the sky would light up, away they would go. The trees used to just drip with birds.”

Decades later, the Raukūmara Range tells a different story. The understorey of trees, from kawakawa to makomako, has been eaten by pests. In August last year, $34 million was allocated to restoring the forest and controlling the explosion of predators, including possums, deer, goats, rats and stoats, that were devastating the forest and pushing threatened species to the point of local extinction.

The four-year restoration project is a partnership between Te Whānau ā Apanui, Ngāti Porou and DoC, and came after strong advocacy from the iwi.

Atkins has been a ranger for almost 30 years and the change he has witnessed upsets him. Totara that once stood tall have fallen. The cacophony of birdsong he heard as a child is gone. On rivers where there would have been 20 whio (blue ducks), there are none.

If he and his DoC colleagues come across bird poo and a blue feather on a rock, they high-five each other and send the feather for testing to prove there really was a whio there.

“How sad is that?”

Atkins leads hikoi through the forest to raise awareness of the forest’s declining state, often spending a week in the “inhospitable” and rugged forest, where there are no marked tracks, steep slopes and scores of roots that make rolling your ankle easy.

Alongside mates, he has led more than 100 people through the ngāhere (native forest) and hopes by seeing its decline first-hand, they will be inspired to add their voice to those calling for protection.

“Out here, you can have hui, hui, hui until the cows come home, but one week-long trip through there and you end up with 30 advocates.”

Atkins uses rongoa (traditional healing) and plants’ medicinal values as a way of connecting people to the forest. “Personal health is something we all relate to,” he says.

His understanding of rongoa came from his grandparents and great-grandparents. Growing up, his grandmother was the “go-to person” for their hapū and would send a teenaged Atkins into the forest with a “shopping list” of plants to bring back.

“[I] learnt the trees through repetition really, the bark, the roots and the ailments as well.”

Today, his love for plants has seen him turn his East Cape property into a reserve of “insurance species”, plants he fears could end up on the threatened list if something isn’t done. Some have a lineage that can be traced to the ancient super-continent Gondwana.

“They didn’t float, they didn’t fly, they’re from the time 80-plus million years ago when it was all joined up.

“I always thought a place like Raukūmara, being so huge, its size would protect it. It shocks me how fast changes have happened over 20 years,” he says.

“If we don’t do something now, it will be a waste of time doing anything because the changes that are occurring out there, as we speak, will become permanent.”

The Thompson whānau: Passing knowledge through wānanga

Growing up in Auckland, Shannon Thompson was often hungry, faced with high food prices and few parental figures to guide him.

So, when the chance to go hunting with a whānau came up, he jumped at it.

“I just saw what they were doing, singeing pigs and skinning deer, and I saw the amount of meat that come off it and [thought] that’s what I want, I want to do that. They said ‘get a knife and jump in the truck’.

“It started from there; never wanting to be hungry ever again and I just started going out and learning how to gather kai.”

It’s led to a lifelong passion for self-sustenance and for hunting and gathering from the ocean and forests. Today, Shannon and wife Adrienne run wānanga in Whakatū (Nelson) where they take rangatahi (young people) hunting and diving, and teach them how to gather their own food.

The Thompson whānau have run three wānanga so far, mostly from their own pocket and while maintaining other work, but they have had some support from businesses inside and outside the region.

Wānanga days are long. The work is hard and the rangatahi attending must be keen. They tramp up steep terrain in the rain, follow dogs tracking animals and spend hours in the forest. When they return to base, they must prepare and package the meat. And then comes the cleanup. Days often start and end in the dark.

If there is an event, food gathered during the wānanga may be taken to local marae, shared with others and shared between the whānau of those attending.

Years ago, as Shannon and Adrienne’s kids grew older in Auckland, they started to crave a different life for their tamariki. They moved to Te Kauwhata, where they grazed animals and lived off the land. The family eventually moved to Whakatū, and started the wānanga earlier this year.

Being able to give to others has been hugely important.

“We don’t buy meat and we’re now able to give so much away now too,” says Adrienne. “It’s that ability to be able to offer something to people, which [Shannon] can give to the young people he can take out as well.

“There’s always more than enough.”

Following correct tikanga is critical to ensuring safe passage within every environmental realm. For example, karakia are recited before each movement, while the state of the natural elements dictates the itinerary.

“In the night, if the full moon is out, if Marama is out, then she’s allowing us to move around in the bush because that’s when she gives our visibility,” Shannon says.

“If Tāwhirimātea is angry then our scent is everywhere, the animal scent is everywhere which makes things a whole lot harder for us, so that’s our time for us to karakia to the awa (river) and fish for tuna instead of hunting for big animals.”

Shannon says he may well have taken a different path in life if it wasn’t for the opportunities he was presented with and hopes to give the same to this generation of rangatahi.

“I know there are rangatahi everywhere, around the world, they only know what they know, so if I can get out there and push it and give them an opportunity, we’re going to do it.”

Tame Malcolm: Pest control for the next generation

Tame Malcolm has always been obsessed with the forest and pest control. He was brought up in te ao Māori and spent much of his childhood immersed in the environment in Rotorua.

“From an early age, I just loved the bush,” Malcolm said.

“My uncles, aunties, parents would take us out and they would teach us a new tree and I would soak it up like a sponge; what a totara is, what a kawakawa is, their uses. I would just soak it up and I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

His passion for the forest has never faded. He studied environment-based subjects at high school and university, but once he finished his bachelor of science degree, returned to a full-time life in the forest as fast as possible.

“My last exam was on a Tuesday, I was hunting by Wednesday.”

Malcolm, of Ngāti Tarāwhai, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Ngāraranui, Tapuika and Ngāti Ruanui, spent many of his early adult years undertaking pest control, often spending 15 days at a time in the forest.

“I would go and chase goats all day, come back, put my goat dogs away and grab my pig dogs or possum traps and go back in [the bush].”

But after eight years, Malcolm felt the tug of a slightly more urban life.

“I started to think, ‘I can’t just live in the bush, I like talking to people’. I spent the next couple of years doing a lot of paperwork, running crews and sending people into the bush.”

Today, he is operations manager for Te Tira Whakamātaki, a non-profit Māori biosecurity network, created in 2015 by social scientist Melanie Mark-Shadbolt, plant pathologist Dr Nick Waipara and soil scientist Dr Amanda Black.

Malcolm also runs his own pest control business for iwi, hapū and whānau, Puna Consultants.

On top of that, whānau commitments and completing his PhD, Malcolm also undertakes pest control on his maunga, Makatiti, east of Rotorua.

Malcolm is motivated by the tangible outcomes. He’s fascinated with the mechanics of pest control and thrilled when he sees the birds returning, flowers blossoming and different fruit emerging.

What excites him the most is when he witnesses a piece of Māori environmental knowledge, from a book or a kaumātua, in the forest.

“I can either say ‘I’ve seen that’ or ‘that makes sense’,” he said, “[for] our tūpuna (ancestors), there was a rhyme and reason for a lot of things they said.”

As an example, Malcolm tells the story of Rāta, who felled a tree in the forest, but when he returned to that spot in the forest the following day, the tree had been resurrected.

Rāta cut down the tree again. And again, when he returned, the tree was standing.

Finally, Rāta stayed overnight and observed the birds and insects putting the tree he had cut down back together – so he asked them why.

“They said, you’re not following the right kawa, tikanga, the right protocols. You have to pray to Tāne. They taught him the process. That story is wrapped in a karakia we were taught as kids.

“The process they taught him [was that] the tohunga would tap on the tree and say a karakia with a rhyme and reason and frequency and wavelength. They’d take a few chips out, burn a kumara and eat it. If you cut a tree down, that’s what you do.”

Malcolm said Te Tira Whakamātaki research found that tapping on the tree and the frequency of the voice when saying the karakia scared away the invertebrates while the flames would scare away the vertebrates.

“So, by following that process you had less ecological impact and you were saving the birds and bees, the ones that taught Rāta that story.”

Malcolm’s ultimate hope is that the bird sounds and species that were present for his grandparents will return in his son’s, or grandchildren’s, lifetimes.

“I grew up with these romantic stories of dad hunting kereru, and kākā being present and kōkako scaring my nanny and koro, the eerie sounds of kōkako. They’re no longer around anymore. We only have kererū in very few numbers,” he says.

“I have this dream that one day my son and, if I have grandkids, they’ll be able to eat kererū appropriately and all the knowledge that comes with it, all the spiritual aspects that come with it, not just the eating meat. That’s the main reason why I got into this work.”

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