A Ngāti Porou man whose love of plants came through his kuia sending him off into the bush in search of rongoā has taken out the country's top conservation award.
Graeme Atkins works as an East Coast ranger for the Department of Conversation by day, but his passion goes well beyond a job, protecting and rescuing some of the country's rarest plants in his free time, and most recently advocating for restoring the Raukūmara Conservation Park, which has been devastated by introduced pests.
All of this mahi has been recognised in Minister of Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage presenting Atkins with Aotearoa's most prestigious conservation award, the Loder Cup.
"Through his passion for taonga and rongoā, Graeme has made an outstanding contribution to the conservation of Aotearoa's native plants," Sage said.
Growing up in rural Ruatoria in the 1970s it was a long way to the doctor, especially on horseback.
So, if somebody got sick Atkins' kuia would send him off into the bush, with a list of natural medical supplies.
It led to a full-blown passion, something Atkins had to "hide" from his mates.
"It was hardcase growing up. Not a lot of my mates were into plants, I had to keep it in the wardrobe."
Today, he still turns to the bush for a range of medicines.
On his whānau land near the mouth of his iwi's sacred Waiapu River, he has created an ark for some of the country's rarest plant specimens — including several which might not be found anywhere else in the world.
These plants include the white kakabeak/ngutukaka, the native iris mikoikoi, and dactylanthus.
Over the past several years Atkins' has led the conversation around the ailing health of the forests of the Raukūmara Range, where introduced pests have brought it to the verge of "ecological collapse".
Working with his iwi and DoC, alongside whanaunga Te Whānau-ā-Apanui on the northern flanks, Atkins has led tours of the ngahere to show the devastation to everyone from hunters to government ministers, and been involved in dozens of community hui.
This year the Government finally took notice, with Sage announcing a $34 million investment in the iwi-led Te Raukūmara Pae Maunga project - a partnership between Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou and DoC to control deer, goats, possums and other pests over 150,000 hectares.
The aim is to ensure species such as whio/blue duck, kākā, kererū, and Hochstetter's frog can thrive once again, and strengthen ahi kaa for mana whenua.
On receiving the award Atkins told the Herald the news still hadn't sunk in.
"Some of the past recipients are people I really look up, greats of the conservation world all with letters next to their names and books - I never thought I'd be where I am today."
Atkins learned rongoā, traditional Māori medicine, from his grandmother and credits his passion for plants to her and his tohunga ancestor, an expert practitioner, from his mother's whakapapa, who specialised in plants and their medicinal properties.
He continues this hereditary interest by running rongoā classes and caring for a rongoā garden on his whānau land.
The key to turning around the state of Aotearoa's environment was in education, and engaging youth, he said.
As part of the Raukūmara project, the community would be involved all the way through in the monitoring so they could see first-hand the benefits of pest control.
"We have got to have the young ones coming through, and education across the board about what we are doing and why it is crucial."
Sage called Atkins a "true kaitiaki for indigenous biodiversity".
"He is humble and compassionate, has strong relationships with Māori and has ignited a passion in so many people to cherish our country's flora.
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.
The Loder Cup was donated in 1926 to encourage and honour New Zealanders who work to investigate, promote, retain and cherish our indigenous flora.