A bare forest floor, erosion, slips and no birdsong explain the state of the once-flourishing Raukumara Conservation Park. And experts say there might be less than 10 years to save it. Michael Neilson reports.

Standing in the middle of the Raukumara Conservation Park should be one of those picture perfect, 100% Pure New Zealand moments.

The birdsong should be deafening, rich with raucous kākā, chirping tūī and kōkako.

The forest floor should be lush, with new trees rising up and filling the gaps in the canopy.

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Instead, the forest is dying, and experts say there might be less than 10 years to save it.

Rather than the native New Zealand birdsong once described by Joseph Banks as "the [most] melodious wild music I have ever heard", there is deathly silence.

In the middle of the 115,000ha forest on the remote East Coast, the bare floor resembles what you might find in the monocultural pine forests nearby, with the most abundant items the countless possum and deer droppings.

It all has a cascading effect.

Holes in the canopy left by a graveyard of 1000-year-old totara allow buckets of sunlight through, drying out the land and causing erosion and slips.

Any seedlings emerging to repair the scars in the land and provide fruit for native birds are quickly consumed by hungry deer. And without those native birds, there is nothing to spread the seeds of the forest.

Dying trees poking through the canopy in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Alan Gibson
Dying trees poking through the canopy in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Alan Gibson

"This is what a dying forest looks like," says Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins.

The problems and their causes are all too obvious to Atkins, who has been visiting the heart of the forest, sacred to his iwi Ngāti Porou on the eastern flanks, for 25 years as a ranger, and over 30 as a keen hunter.

"The changes over that time have been catastrophic."

When he first started visiting the forest the birdsong was "deafening".

"You would wake up to a full bird chorus."

Now, locals joke you need an alarm clock.

A massive slip in the Raukumara Conservation Park highlights the environmental challenges facing the East Coast forest north of Gisborne. Photo / Graeme Atkins
A massive slip in the Raukumara Conservation Park highlights the environmental challenges facing the East Coast forest north of Gisborne. Photo / Graeme Atkins

When Atkins first started surveying the flora of the forest, it would take two people at least 10 hours to do a 200m line, because of all the different plants to record.

"You used to need a machete to even make your way to the line," Atkins says.

Now, one person can do three lines in the same period.

All the edible species that once dominated the understorey and provided food to native birds have been plucked by the deer. Only ferns and horopito (pepperwood) remain, which Atkins says is the future of the forest if nothing is done.

There are so few seedlings left, herds of deer have moved to the outer reaches of the forest, some locals have even spotted them in coastal towns, leaving just a few skinny ones to chomp through any new growth.

Atkins' boss says there might be 10 years to save the forest without an increase in pest control. Atkins himself is a little more desperate.

"Two years, if we are not already too late."

Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins (right) explains the dire situation to DoC deputy Director General Mike Slater. Photo / Alan Gibson
Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Atkins (right) explains the dire situation to DoC deputy Director General Mike Slater. Photo / Alan Gibson

The Ruatoria-based ranger has reason to feel desperate. He has been at the forefront of a campaign to highlight environmental issues in the ngāhere, which represents a mammoth challenge for the nation's predator-free 2050 ambitions, not only due to its size but co-management arrangements with iwi and a passionate and vocal hunting community.

The Raukumara forest has been one of the last places in New Zealand for deer to colonise. They arrived around the 1970s but were kept in check for some time by hunters who could earn good money on the international feral venison market.

When that market collapsed in the early 2000s, the cost of recovery became too high and deer numbers exploded.

The last possum control operation in the Raukumara was in 1996, and that population too has expanded at concerning rates.

At 115,000ha, the conservation park, the second highest level of protection under national park, is dwarfed by the country's largest protected area, Fiordland National Park, which covers 1.26 million ha.

Due to its ruggedness it has low recreation values, aside from hunting and some hearty hikes. For the same reason it is rarely visited by tourists.

However, its importance to tāngata whenua, its ecological values and its impacts on the wider geography, especially in terms of water quality and erosion, has made its degradation of massive concern to those living in the region.

DoC, which administers the park, has been working on a co-ordinated management approach with local iwi, and has organised several trips taking East Coast leaders and politicians into the heart of the forest by helicopter to witness the devastation first-hand.

Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou director Ani Pahuru-Huriwai said the destruction in their sacred forest was a
Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou director Ani Pahuru-Huriwai said the destruction in their sacred forest was a "huge issue" for the iwi. Photo / File

"I feel heavy, distraught," says Ani Pahuru-Huriwai, a director of Te Runanganui o Ngāti Porou, which has a co-management arrangement with DoC as part of its Treaty settlement.

"When Ngāti Porou say, 'Ko Hikurangi te maunga, Ko Waiapu te awa', our pepeha, the beginnings of those are in here.

"We have a whakapapa connection, and believe the birds, the trees, the insects, the animals, are our tuakana (siblings), and we have a responsibility to care for them."

What happens in the forest does not stay in the forest, either.

The East Coast land is notoriously prone to erosion. The surrounding scarred high country, once indigenous forest burned down by settlers for farming, provides a stark warning.

Department of Conservation East Coast operations manager John Lucas with a discarded antler from one of the
Department of Conservation East Coast operations manager John Lucas with a discarded antler from one of the "skinny deer" hoovering up what's left of the forest floor. Photo / Alan Gibson

The eroding land chokes the iwi's sacred Waiapu River with 35 million tonnes of sediment each year - 17 per cent of the entire country's from 0.6 per cent of the land.

Further south near Gisborne, the Waipaoa River pumps out another 15m tonnes, all eventually flowing into the sea and burying reefs that have provided kaimoana for generations.

As the forest weakens, slips in the Raukumara grow, adding more sediment still to those rivers.

DoC spends about $250,000 a year controlling red deer and goats in the forest, but East Coast operations manager John Lucas says to reverse the damage in the Raukumara and find a balance, that needs to be drastically increased.

"At the moment it is completely out of whack," says Lucas. "There is a sweet spot between the right level of deer for recreational hunters, but also fundamentally looking after biodiversity values."

The last possum control in the forest in 1996 involved aerial application of 1080. Since then possum numbers have rapidly increased. Possums could eat up to 300g of foliage a day, and left unimpeded could do so much damage trees couldn't recover.

Lisa Beach next to one of the hundreds of dead totara in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Supplied
Lisa Beach next to one of the hundreds of dead totara in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Supplied

On a recent survey DoC staff counted 200 dead totara, ravaged by possums.

Options for controlling such pests in isolated, rugged parts of the country are limited, Lucas says.

"A lot of this country is not conducive to walking around in, so the ultimate answer could be a combination of trapping where it is safe and accessible, and where it is inaccessible and ground control is not an option, the use of poison, and 1080 is obviously one of them."

Pest control – especially the use of 1080 – is a polarising topic in the community, amplified through social media.

Pahuru-Huriwai says a lot of the opposition comes from hunters who fear pest control will affect their way of life.

"There is a whole kete (basket) of solutions, but we need to ensure the cupboards of our people are also protected.

Department of Conservation ranger Joe Waikari standing where a huge hole in the canopy has developed. Photo / Alan Gibson
Department of Conservation ranger Joe Waikari standing where a huge hole in the canopy has developed. Photo / Alan Gibson

"But the forest is massive. Deer are coming much closer to the towns these days, and people do not have to go miles [into the forest] to hunt.

"Sometimes we also forget possums, deer and pigs were introduced – they are not taonga.

"At the end of the day our role is to leave this world in a better place than we found it."

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, who visited the forest in February, says the damage caused by deer is "distressing".

"The impact of deer was severe and obvious with almost a complete absence of important understorey species that are critical in any natural ecosystem for a wide range of our endangered native species.

"It was distressing to see so many trees which had been ring-barked by deer browse, suggesting that deer are hungry."

Deer droppings litter an open patch of ground in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Alan Gibson
Deer droppings litter an open patch of ground in the Raukumara Forest Park. Photo / Alan Gibson

DoC's ability to respond to the growing deer population has been "challenging", with severe funding cuts and loss of staff under the former National government, Sage says.

DoC is now fully committed to managing deer to restore the forest, Sage says.

"How this is best done requires consultation with mana whenua as Treaty partners and discussion with hunter organisations, the Game Animal Council and others.

"Iwi have a unique relationship with the land and the forests. Any lasting solution needs to be conscious of this if it is to be successful."

Both Ngāti Porou and Bay of Plenty iwi Te Aitanga-ā-Mahaki, on the forest's northern flanks, are holding a series of hui to inform their communities about the challenges facing the forest and options for pest control.

Tina Ngata, who has been co-organising hui for her iwi Ngāti Porou, says they are having good turnouts so far and plenty of interesting discussion.

"This is the first stage, and is about discussing the importance of the Raukumara, the devastation being caused, and the options to do something about it."

They are also hearing from their own people who have first hand experience of what is happening there.

Aerial view of the vast Raukumara Ranges located north of Gisborne. Photo / Alan Gibson
Aerial view of the vast Raukumara Ranges located north of Gisborne. Photo / Alan Gibson

"We need to listen to our own experts, those who have lived in the bush as conservationists and understand it, not just stopped by to grab a deer."

Ngata acknowledges there is some strong opposition to 1080 in the community, but says that is not the focus of their discussions.

"Some people just want to focus on that, but we need to discuss just how sick [the Raukumara] is before we even get to that."

Ngata, an environmental and indigenous rights educator, says there is an opportunity for the community to be involved in the process.

"I understand people might not trust science, and be wary of people who just drop into town from Wellington or Auckland.

"But we can do our own science, our own monitoring. If people have an issue with 1080, I don't understand why we can't monitor it ourselves.

"In my work monitoring freshwater I have seen firsthand, freshwater ecosystems flourishing after 1080 drops. I do not believe those who then say they read in some paper it kills everything.

"We know from places like Mapara they have seen a massive increase in breeding kōkako pairs after 1080 drops. We used to have kōkako here too.

"I think the best science is when we can see it with our own eyes, not when scientists come from out of town, and people don't know their agenda."

Grey, dying and dead trees in the Raukumara Conservation Park highlight the environmental challenges facing the East Coast forest north of Gisborne. Photo / Graeme Atkins
Grey, dying and dead trees in the Raukumara Conservation Park highlight the environmental challenges facing the East Coast forest north of Gisborne. Photo / Graeme Atkins

The hui are part of fulfilling their role as kaitiaki of the ngāhere, especially in the post-Treaty settlement environment, Ngata says.

"Our tipuna used the Raukumara. That was then taken out of our hands through colonisation and it was returned for co-management between the Crown – DoC – and TRONPnui [Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou Trust].

"We [Ngāti Porou] will vote on what to do, and DoC, following principles of working in good partnership with us, needs to give us time and information before we vote. This roadshow is the first step.

"This is our taonga, it has always been there, and we have more agency now than ever since colonisation, so it is an opportunity to be involved in this decision making."

Ngata says while it will take some time to ensure they properly inform the community, they are hopeful knowing there is a government more interested in conservation than in the past.

"We are hoping we can see some action by the end of next year.

"The past 10 to 15 years we have had governments constantly cutting DoC.

"Now we have had the first minister of conservation come up here to see it firsthand - it is hard enough getting them to Gisborne."