While working on my masters thesis research in New Zealand last year, I had the privilege of spending some time in their capital’s wildlife sanctuary, just a 15 minute bus ride from the center of Wellington.
Zealandia just celebrated their 20th anniversary this July, and I wanted to share my adventure at this amazing wildlife refuge.
In their exhibition facility, Zealandia provides a fascinating video (produced by the same guys who filmed Lord of the Rings) to share some of New Zealand’s history. The 7 minute video describes the country’s historical human interactions with its native flora and fauna. A fun fact is that New Zealand is the only country in the world where their largest native herbivore and carnivore were both birds, the Moa and Haast’s eagle, which are both extinct. New Zealand had no native mammals, save for a couple of species of bats, and so these islands were dominated by birds. New Zealand’s birds are colorful, quirky, and found nowhere else in the world.
After New Zealand’s native birds were threatened with extinction due to predation by introduced mammal predators, as well as habitat loss from fire and development, many species were no longer found on the main islands of the country. In the early 1990’s a group of dedicated visionaries and volunteers came together to turn the city’s water supply reservoir into a wildlife sanctuary. By building a protective perimeter fence Zealandia was able to bring birds back to the Wellington.
This protective fence is designed to keep out mammal predators that would otherwise decimate native bird and plant populations. Unfortunately it will never be 100% invasive-proof – hawks and owls can drop live prey over the fence, and seeds can disperse into the sanctuary; therefore volunteers must diligently trap for mammals and weed throughout the 225 ha sanctuary (about 555 acres, or over 419 American football fields). With around 400 current active volunteers, Zealandia enjoys strong community support for their native flora and fauna.
I was able to go on a night hike around the sanctuary with one of the employees, and it is one of my favorite memories of New Zealand. As the sun set we heard my beloved calls from the Tūī, a chatty black bird whose feathers shine green-blue in the sunlight. Kākā, one of New Zealand’s parrots, squawked loudly as they flew overhead to find their evening roosts. Kākā had rarely been seen in Wellington since the early 19th century, but in 2002-2003 several parrots were reintroduced to the sanctuary. Now with a healthy population, the Kākā’s boisterous calls have spread well beyond the fence and can be heard at the capital building. I enjoyed visiting the parrots at the botanic gardens downtown. Thanks to successful reintroductions at Zealandia, many other native birds can also now be heard throughout the city.
On my hike we stopped to feed dinner to Puffin and T2, Zealandia’s Takahē ambassadors. Takahē are one of two flightless herbivore species left in New Zealand (both are critically endangered and rely on intensive breeding programs for survival). We saw tree and cave weta, an omnivorous insect which I would describe as a cricket/cockroach mix. At first I was pretty creeped out by these bugs, as some were as long as my fingers, but watching them crawl along a tree trunk was pretty exciting.
As we ambled along the path in the dark, I thought I noticed small ephemeral lights in my peripheral vision, but I convinced myself it must be a reflection in my glasses, or something. Being my first hike in darkness, I thought the night was playing tricks on my eyes. But then my guide had me crouch down next to a stream bank, and as my eyes adjusted, the bank sparkled with small blue lights – glow worms! They were like stars, mesmerizing me as I sat on the ground looking up on the hillside sparkling with lights.
Along the bottom of the valley we walked over a low bridge, where we were greeted by a very large eel. I had never seen anything like it in person before. She was probably as long as I was tall, with black slimy skin. She poked her head out of the water and slid over rocks searching for food, but she was very shy of our noises and quickly continued on her way downstream. They may not be sexy, but these native freshwater species need our protection. New Zealand’s freshwater eels only mate once in their lives (much like America’s salmon), spending up to sometimes eighty years in freshwater streams before returning to the ocean to breed.
Along with birds, Zealandia is a sanctuary for a rare reptile called a Tuatara. Although they resemble lizards, Tuatara come from a distinct lineage older than lizards or snakes and have two rows of teeth in the upper jaw which makes them unique. Tuatara were brought to Zealandia in 2005 and they now have successful naturally breeding pairs within the sanctuary as well as a captive rearing facility. Peering into a warmed protective glass cage, I caught a glimpse of a baby Tuatara as it peeked out from under a log.
The real reason I was tramping around the woods that night was to spot the elusive, endangered, little spotted kiwi. Extirpated from the mainland since 1875, kiwi are nocturnal, about the size of a chicken, and rely on their strong sense of smell to forage for insects in the undergrowth. Originally, 40 kiwis were released into Zealandia – now over 140 individuals are living within the sanctuary. This sanctuary was the first successful attempt to reintroduce kiwis onto the mainland at such a large scale, all thanks to their perimeter fence and the tireless effort of staff and volunteers.
Our senses were on high alert as we walked quietly through the woods listening for the kiwi calls. At the slight rustling of leaves, we all stopped and held our breath, slowly sweeping our red torch lights across the dense foliage. With luck on my side, we spotted three kiwis that night. Watching the nocturnal bird weaving between shrubs on its two stout legs and bobbing its long slender beak under leaves, my first impression was that this is the most adorably awkward creature I have ever seen.
Standing on a bridge towards the top of the hill, I overlooked New Zealand native forest stuffed to the brim with flax, ferns, trees and shrubs. A Morepork owl startled and took flight, its wings so silent that one of my fellow hikers didn’t even notice when it flew within feet of his head. At the heart of the sanctuary, Zealandia imagines a future where nature and people thrive together. Called the Halo Effect, the sanctuary hopes that local communities will benefit from their efforts as birds migrate outside of the perimeter fence, and that the community will support protective measures to reduce invasive mammal populations across the country. Once a dream but now a reality, neighborhood kids can hear kiwi calls as they go to bed. As the forest grows, the hope is that one day you can stand within city limits and not hear any cars. As a gentle breeze ruffled the foliage and the Southern Cross shone brightly in the sky, it was not hard for me to imagine what could be possible at the sanctuary.
While Zealandia can’t guarantee you’ll see a kiwi on their night hike, it is quite an extraordinary experience none the less.
Information about Zealandia found at http://www.visitzealandia.com/