My first sight of Karori Reservoir was in 1990 during Forest & Bird’s city-wide biological survey for Natural Wellington. Our efforts to enter had been rebuffed by the caretaker, and we snuck in to see what this place was like. I can remember that feeling of awe as we walked out on to the top dam, still full of water, and this magnificent valley opened up before us. It was then that I knew that this place was special.
Our survey showed the valley was in an unparalleled strategic location: snuggled up close into the city with all the other reserves and bush patches radiating from it like spokes from the hub of a wheel. It looked perfect for the role of a biological nursery to repopulate Wellington with its lost native species.
Two years later, the Greater Wellington Regional Council announced the reservoir would be retired and returned to Wellington City Council for public use. My proposal for a fenced sanctuary was greeted with enthusiasm, and the two councils put up $60,000 for a comprehensive feasibility study. A year later, we had their permission to go ahead.
Initially, everything looked straightforward. Finance seemed to be readily available, the councils were supportive, and public enthusiasm for the idea was high, with 2000 people quickly signing up for membership. The trust was officially launched in July 1995.
Then the going got tough. Funding sources dried up, competition from city projects increased, and political support waned. We managed to raise $2.4 million for the 8.6km fence (the first multi-species barrier in the country), and the regional council covered the eradication. Many generous private donations allowed the trust to progress. The fence was built in the summer of 1999, and the eradication was all over by October. We held our breath to see if it would hold back the tide of nasties and it did – until mice were discovered in the valley six months later.
The next five years were a slow patient grind of raising money, carefully establishing native species in the valley, and building essential infrastructure such as tracks andvisitor facilities. With species build-up in the valley taking time to show results, it was hard going. Key to our survival was our membership and volunteer force, which helped maintain momentum and enthusiasm. An explosion in the tūī population and success with translocations helped build credibility.
In 2006, the city council and the trust entered a partnership to build a new visitor/exhibition centre and rebrand the enterprise as Zealandia, with a view to securing its financial future. The move was not popular with everyone, including many members. Cost overruns, optimistic visitor projections, naive public relations, and poor judgement about admissions pricing didn’t help our public profile. However, this has proven to be the right move. The project just needed time to work.
In 2012, a proposal to merge Zealandia with the zoo, the botanic gardens, and Otari to form a single councilcontrolled trust met with universal disapproval. After public consultation, the council scrapped the idea and entered into an arrangement to permanently secure Zealandia’s future. The result is a genuine and productive community/ public partnership under a reformed trust board ably led by Chair Denise Church.
From a conservation standpoint, it has been an unqualified success. The fence has allowed the successful reintroduction of many of our most threatened species. There have been 12 successful fauna translocations, and resident species have boomed. Planting programmes are returning missing flora to the valley. Visitors can see birds at any time of the day or year in the valley, and the parks and gardens around the city are alive with birdlife.
Visitors now exceed the predictions in the original feasibility study (126,000 per year), with satisfaction levels consistently more than 90 percent. Membership continues to grow and is nearing 11,000. The 450 volunteers add tremendous value. The visitor centre is humming. Zealandia is returning a financial surplus, and the trust expects to be debt free within three years. Our once ambitious goals are all now being met or on target.
Zealandia has driven a big change in public attitudes towards conservation, and the city council regards it as a key asset that returns tens of millions of dollars per year in economic value as well as enhancing Wellington’s green reputation.
Where to from here? We are now in the comfortable position of being able to watch nature repair itself and make sure the nasties don’t break in. There are only a few bird species that could be added, and the emphasis now will be on plants, reptiles, invertebrates, and freshwater species. Conservation will focus on lake restoration and the canopy transition from pines to podocarps. A science programme, partnerships, and community engagement will be priorities.
What lessons have we learnt along the way? The most important is that funding for conservation is limited. Community enterprises need a “mothership” to survive and thrive: partners who can help weather the storms. Being the first of its type, we were learning on the job and mistakes were made. The Karori model isn’t appropriate for all situations. Wellington’s size and relative affluence make it an option. Smaller centres may need to scale down to be viable.
We know that predator fencing works. During 16 years, the fence has held firm and allowed the most sensitive of threatened species to survive in the most hostile environment imaginable: an urban cityscape. Fencing has limitations, and the capital cost can be a hurdle. It may not be the right solution everywhere, but there is no doubt that it has a place in the limited conservation toolkit.
In 1995, we were talking about a seemingly improbable future. Today, 21 years later, the forest is no longer silent. There is a cacophony of birdsong from dawn to dusk with kiwi calling into the night. The future is here.
Native species thriving
Before Zealandia’s fence, nine native forest bird species were resident in the area, including tūī, fantail, morepork, kingfisher, white-eye, grey warbler, and shining cuckoo. Today, 28 native bird species are resident and breeding in the valley.
Kererū, NZ falcon, paradise shelduck, and pied shag have self-introduced. The remainder have been successfully translocated, including little spotted kiwi, kākāriki, kākā, whitehead, hihi, robin, saddleback, brown teal, and black teal. Bellbirds are present and breeding but not yet securely. Tuatara, Maude Island frog, and Cook Strait giant weta have been established, with spotted skink the latest addition.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. For example, several translocations have failed – bellbirds, tomtits, weka – because of the presence of dominant competitors or incompatibility with mouse control.
This story is reproduced here with permission from Forest & Bird NZ