Supporting a world-class sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi

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    27 June 2024

Supporting a world-class sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi Desktop Image Supporting a world-class sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi Mobile Image

Just an hour from downtown Auckland lies an island sanctuary that is home to an unrivalled range of wildlife. Tiritiri Matangi, like many islands in the Hauraki Gulf, has had many lives – as a prime fishing site for early Māori inhabitants, a sheep and cattle farm, a lighthouse site and a military base. Today it is a world-class wildlife sanctuary, a haven where kiwis roam as one of many flourishing bird species, living alongside geckos, weta, and tuataras.

The sanctuary would not be what it is without the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (Supporters), formed in 1988 to raise funds to support the conservation work for the island. Today, under the responsibility of the Department of Conservation (DOC), the island is co-managed with the Supporters, whose work includes guiding, track
maintenance, research, fundraising, and managing the Visitor Centre and shop. More than 1,500 members of the Supporters work across five main areas of activity: nature conservation, cultural conservation, insight, inspiration, participation, and providing opportunities for people to be involved.

Last year, MinterEllisonRuddWatts began partnering with the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi as part of the firm’s community investment programme. Sustainable Impact spoke with Chairperson of the Supporters, Ian Alexander, and Operations Manager, Debbie Marshall, to understand more about their work to create an enduring sustainable conservation legacy built around supporting and enhancing biodiversity on the island.

A four-pronged mission

Ian Alexander says that the mission has four main components.

“Our first job is to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the open sanctuary at Tiritiri Matangi. Our second role is to conduct and support research of potential benefit to the sanctuary. Thirdly we’re here to provide financial, material and physical support for the work on the island, and fourthly we work to educate and inspire visitors and others to become advocates: supporting opportunities for people of diverse interests to participate.”

Debbie Marshall adds that it is important for the Supporters to understand their value and role as kaitiaki of the island.

“We are here to care for the island. The work that the volunteers and paid members do comes from respecting the flora and fauna and the people of the of the island.

“Our volunteers do a wide range of things. We have a wonderful education plan to inspire visitors, providing opportunities for them to be involved in our biodiversity and infrastructure – as well as sharing the experience through our guiding volunteer programme. This is all underpinned by kaitiakitanga and a sense of achievement of what’s been achieved on the island.”

A conservation success story of international significance

The Supporters have done an enormous amount of work on the island. So, how do they approach conservation on the island, and how do they galvanize their support over the long haul?

Ian Alexander says that Tiritiri Matangi is seen as a conservation success story of international significance largely because of the enthusiasm, motivation and interest of its volunteers.

“There is a huge range of projects happening all the time. Most of these initiatives come from people who have ideas of what sort of bird or gecko could come to the island. They then investigate, get evidence, and go through a long and detailed process before something new can be introduced.

“Then there’s the work of our infrastructure team who are always looking at maintenance needs, keeping the island up to a state where the public can visit safely.”

He adds that the biodiversity group has ongoing projects, surveying creatures like the tuatara, plus the many regular kiwi counts.

Debbie Marshall adds that other birds being monitored include seabirds.

“We have ongoing monitoring of penguins, diving petrels and other seabirds during the breeding season. We also have ongoing work in the marine environment, including planktons and sea grasses. We’re lucky
to have a volunteer marine scientist who regularly does that work. We provide information evenings for members to share knowledge and opportunities for people to put their hand up to help.”

Many biodiversity and habitat restoration successes

When Ian Alexander first came onto the island 20 years ago, there were only 100 takahe in Aotearoa New Zealand, he says. Now there are more than 500 takahe and the island contributed to building those numbers.

“There have been some really good gains made, but it’s quite slow. Planting 283,000 trees and flaxes over the 1984 to 1994 period has been another area of success – bringing back the flora has enabled bringing back a huge number of endangered and rare birds. One of the greatest success stories is that the island has become a breeding place for birds that we can then translocate to other sanctuaries around New Zealand.”

He cites a particular success story, supporting a programme to lift the numbers of a little bird called the hihi.

“Early settlers destroyed the hihi’s habitat, so they flew offshore. About 29 years ago DOC realised that it was important that these birds didn’t disappear, so they chose a couple of places, one being Tiritiri Matangi, to start a breeding programme. We supported it by installing nesting boxes and feeding stations for the birds, and continue with the help of Chelsea Sugar Refinery providing raw sugar.”

The hihi programme has been successful, and last year’s breeding season, 300 chicks hatched. Without the programme, major sanctuaries like Zealandia in Wellington and Rotokare in Taranaki wouldn’t have these birds.

Debbie Marshall adds that the island is also home to a Takahe recovery project, among many others.

“Takahe is one of New Zealand’s threatened species. They are incredibly territorial and you can’t have a lot of them in one place or they will fight each other. We’ve got two families on the island and every second year or so the chicks are translocated.”

Relying on volunteers and pro bono legal advice

The takahe can also be a happy distraction for volunteers, says Marshall. She talks of a time recently when a MinterEllisonRuddWatts team was track clearing on the island, something she describes as “one of those thankless tasks that is never done”.

The last team that came to volunteer saw the northern takahe family on their way to the work site. While working trimming harakeke, the takahe family came to visit and stayed – it seemed that they were keen to supervise the work.

“We really appreciate all the of the support and advice MinterEllisonRuddWatts gives us as one of our key partners. It’s really important for us to access good quality legal advice to support the development and operations on the island,” says Debbie Marshall.

Funding the future

As the flora grows and the numbers of birds, reptiles, and invertebrates increase on Tiritiri Matangi, it is helping to repopulate sanctuaries across Aotearoa New Zealand.

As visitor numbers increase, the challenge for the island’s guardians is to manage visitor numbers and safeguard the magic of wandering amidst birdsong on quiet forest paths. Several projects are in the pipeline, including developing a new field centre and accommodation for researchers and visitors.

“We have consent to build a 30-bed field centre and accommodation area which has been a huge undertaking – with much more work to come. A major track renewal is also needed for one of the main guiding tracks which is now 25–30 years old and is showing some deterioration. DOC has said that to renew it would cost $500,000, and the field centre will also cost several million dollars over its staged development. It does require a lot of funding to keep our operations going.”

Debbie Marshall agrees, adding that the work the Supporters are doing on the island is not something that is ever going to be finished.

“We want it to go on forever. So keeping the funding going, keeping the people coming, keeping the inspiration, the participation, all of that, is really important to all of us.”


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