Bringing back the birdsong

    Rakiura Stewart Island is home to a variety of bird life.

    Rakiura Stewart Island is a place you can bump into kiwi crossing the road or hear the harsh skraark of a kaka flying above. Taonga on the island, however, face predation. Southland Express reporter Laura Smith visited the island to speak to one of the many people involved in the fight to tip the scales in favour of our native species.

    PREDATOR Free Rakiura was born from community commitment to protecting the species which share their island home.

    A man involved in the project says even if they knew how to achieve their goals, it would be a big exercise.

    But, they have to figure it out first.

    The Predator Free Rakiura Group was a collaboration of iwi, government, business, organisations and community representatives, and the Department of Conservation (Doc) was one of many which signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019.

    Doc partnerships manager and Rakiura acting operations manager Phil Tisch supported the project.

    He explained while other groups on the island focused on predator control, what they were doing looked beyond that.

    “How do we sort out the long-term problem? It’s more of a planning and research type of approach.”

    Just less than 90% of the island was national park, and the project covered about 170,000ha.

    Dotting the seascape surrounding Rakiura are more than 35 titi, or muttonbird, islands.

    Here, where many are without predators, is an abundance of bird and insect life; the group’s aim was to bring back those wildlife numbers to Rakiura.

    A project of this scale had not been attempted before; therefore there were many unknowns.

    If successful, however, it would mean the country’s third largest island could provide a home for species in need of sanctuary, such as kakapo and takahe.

    Planning and research would be undertaken in the next three to five years, on how to rid the island of feral cats, possums, hedgehogs and rats.

    It would result in options for doing so, and how much it would cost.

    Beyond that, it was a step to achieving Predator Free New Zealand 2050.

    “If we can’t do it here, we probably can’t do it anywhere else,” Mr Tisch said.

    The group was working to form an independent entity, which would be a trust or company with charitable status.

    A governance board and project structure were also being established.

    The possibilities of a predator-free Rakiura were many; most of the birds in the kakapo recovery programme were originally from Stewart Island.

    Mr Tisch said space would soon be a problem, and the island could be the solution.

    “This is the logical next step for them.”

    With healthy ecosystems from mountain-tops to sea, he explained the relationship with humans.

    The vision: A healthy, thriving community which benefited and supported a healthy, thriving environment.

    Feral cats and rats were the main concerns for the island’s many species, but the Stewart Island kiwi/tokoeka was fortunate there were no mustelids.

    This was why there were good numbers of tokoeka, but it was probable cats killed chicks,
    and this was bad news for a declining population.

    The research would aim to find the best ways to improve the situation, but the funding needed for research was relatively small-scale compared with the cost of actually ‘‘doing’’ it.

    Plan development could cost between $2 million and $5 million, covering contracting  experts and completing trials.

    ‘Doing’ it, however, was estimated to cost between $50 million and $100 million.

    Doc had contributed $1 million to the establishment of the entity, and had committed to funding the project for up to five years.

    ‘‘It is highly likely the project will source funding from other areas; philanthropic groups… they’ll come up with their funding strategy.’’

    Part of the process was understanding who was doing what work where, and trials could be
    incorporated to fit with other group’s projects.

    An example Mr Tisch gave was working with the Stewart Island/Rakiura Community and
    Environment Trust, which had a programme in place around the town.

    It could be the group needed to trial biosecurity measures, and so an organisation such as the trust could assist in setting up a network that detected pests as they came on to the island.

    ‘‘It is absolutely critical all the groups involved in predator free on the island dovetail.’’

    This was already happening within the small community, he said.

    From the pupils at Halfmoon Bay School, to Sandy King with her predator dog Gadget, there were education and biosecurity processes in place already.

    ‘‘Locals will say this project has been spoken about for years… a project of this scale has not been tackled in the whole of the world.’’

    It was hoped to have the trust formed by October.

    Methods, costs and what was possible would be outlined in a report afterwards.