When Graeme Atkins was growing up in rural Ruatoria in the 1970s it was a long way to the doctor, especially on horseback.

So, if somebody got sick his 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.

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

"It was hardcase growing up. Not a lot of my mates were into plants, I had to keep it in the wardrobe."


Today, the Ngāti Porou Department of Conservation ranger 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.

Walking around his backyard is like stepping into a native pharmacy.

Most obvious are the kawakawa, karamu and koromiko — the three "Ks" as Atkins teaches his disciples.

Kawakawa is used for its natural antimicrobial properties, karamu a blood purifier, and koromiko, which helps with a sore puku. The latter used to be so popular it was dried and sent over to Kiwi troops fighting in the world wars.

A slightly lesser known plant is the Cranwell iris, thought to be extinct until — over a decade ago — Atkins found it in the middle of a paddock full of grazing cows.

Instead of leaving its fate to natural selection, Atkins took a clipping to add to the hundreds, if not thousands, of "insurance populations" on his 30ha plant haven, protected under Ngā Whenua Rāhui.

Atkins has an encyclopedic knowledge of New Zealand's native flora, and probably fauna too, but he is not as interested in the "show ponies" of conservation.

"It is easy to generate public sympathy for kiwi or kākāpō, with their almost human features, but plants? Not so much."

For Atkins it is their uniqueness and "Gondwanaland links" — some stretching back several hundred million years — that inspire him to protect them.

"Now, through no fault of their own, they are becoming extinct."

Pressures from land development, introduced pests and climate change are all threatening our native species.

East Coast taonga species like pohutukawa and mānuka are also being affected by myrtle rust.

Atkins does not stand by and watch. He has been pushing for action in the Raukumara Forest Park, vanishing before his eyes due to exploding numbers of introduced pests.

He runs regular rongoā (traditional medicine) classes, takes volunteer groups out into the forests, and has set up local plant-recovery teams.

When Dame Anne Salmond decided to build a garden at her Longbush Ecosanctuary near Gisborne, based on the rare plant specimens James Cook would have found when he arrived to the region in 1769, she tasked Atkins with finding them.

Along with the biodiversity values of these species it is the rongoā, medicinal properties, that interest him.

Atkins believes the interest also came from a tohunga, an expert practitioner, from his mother's whakapapa, who specialised in plants and their medicinal properties. Atkins also became an apprentice of local rongoā practitioner Papa Bill Rickard, a relation.

He never formally studied conservation but always had a passion for the environment, especially in his rohe.

After spending several years travelling abroad the scale of environmental destruction he was witnessing began to hammer home.

The rubbish, the overfishing, the extinction of species all got to Atkins.

"I realised how lucky we are in New Zealand and so we have got to look after what we have." Back home, he began volunteering at the DoC office in Gisborne before he was offered a short-term ranger job in Ruatoria.

As his bosses noticed his knack for identifying rare species the short-term gig became long term and he never looked back.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself, that I am getting paid to do this kind of work."
While he loves the work, seeing the level of environmental devastation is taking its toll.

"Working at the coal face of conservation can be quite depressing. There is a feeling of powerlessness. We are monitoring things vanishing.

"We are having to prioritise species over species, but I think these little herby plants are just as special as the birds. They are endemic. If we lose them here we lose them to the universe.

"The best you can do for these critical populations is to make insurance populations."

As he did learning from his kuia, his three children, now young adults, are taking a keen interest in all things environmental, and are strongly connected to their Māori roots.

Atkins, his wife Makere and children are all fluent in te reo.

Atkins sees reconnecting rangatahi with plants as a way of reconnecting with their culture.

He runs several rongoā classes a year and assists with marae growing traditional plants such as kakaho, used in tukutuku panels.

"Everyone has a marae around here so growing these species around them and getting their fingers back in the dirt is a way to reconnect. If we do that enough hopefully they'll be bitten by the tree bug, like I was."