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May 2013 Issue
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Will Tiri survive a signaled policy shift?

DOC ranger Jason Campbell briefs visitors at the wharf. Photo: Neville Peat

More tourism operators bringing more visitors threatens the viability of Tiritiri Matangi Island as a island sanctuary, writes Neville Peat

Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf is a standout example – a flagship project even – of how government nature conservation work can link with long-standing and heartfelt community effort to create a ‘lifeboat’ sanctuary for endangered species.

When you see how the 220ha island operates, it’s hard to know which entity has more influence; government in the form of the Department of Conservation or the community as represented by the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi.

DOC has the legal responsibility but without the supporters, Tiri would not be the open sanctuary jewel-in-the-crown it is today.

The birdsong resonating through the regenerating forest is an echo of the great dawn chorus that early writers reported, notably naturalist Joseph Banks of Cook’s Endeavour expedition. Banks described one such chorus as ‘melodious wild musick’, the likes of which he had never before heard.

Tiri is a haven for endangered birds such as kokako, saddleback, stitchbird, takahe and brown teal, and the unique but vulnerable reptile, tuatara. The island’s role is still evolving. There are plans for lizard and snipe translocations and the establishment of breeding populations of selected seabird species.

Its transformation from a sheep and cattle farm dating back 120 years is extraordinary. The lighthouse, shipped from England in 1864, used to tower over grassy fields. Today, Tiri is two-thirds native forest and shrubland.

It became a reserve in 1969. After the lighthouse was automated, lighthouse keeper Ray Walter transferred to the Lands and Survey Department in 1984 in the role of the island’s ranger. Over the next 10 years, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, he set out to restore the forest. More than 280,000 trees and shrubs were planted.

Tiri had no introduced mammalian predators except for the Pacific rat kiore, which was removed. So it soon became a sanctuary for many of the nation’s top-tier endangered birds, where people could see and hear rare wildlife and wander with guides or at will.

Walter considers Tiri a “mindblowing success” for nature conservation. He remains a Supporters’ committee member and he and his wife, Barbara, now living in Howick, still volunteer for work on Tiri.

But dark clouds seem to be gathering.

DOC, through its draft Conservation Management Strategy for the Auckland region, is proposing to increase visitor numbers and tour operator access to the island.

Walter describes the proposals as “disturbing”. Instead of having one tour operator bringing up to 170 visitors a day five days a week (with school groups coming on three days), the idea is there could be several operators bringing up to 170 visitors a day seven days a week. In addition, DOC is proposing to double the limit on overnight stays, from 25 people to 50.

Driving this policy shift is the government’s directive to DOC to commercialise nature conservation – a thrust of the current restructuring of the department that has demoralised many of the staff. The government is telling DOC to get more businesses involved, and create more ways for the community to be involved, too.

This might produce net benefits for endangered wildlife but people like Ray Walter worry about the radical switch in focus, at least where Tiritiri Matangi is concerned, from conservation to tourism. At the moment, Tiri receives about 27,000 visitors a year. “We’re arguing Tiri won’t stand an increase of the size proposed,” Walter says.

I saw Tiri on a relatively busy day in February. East Mangere School was paying a visit and the catamaran ferry was three-quarters full with pupils and many overseas tourists. Half a dozen launches brought independent holidaymakers who swam ashore or landed by dinghy. The walking tracks were well used that day.

Green solitude is not what Tiri provides on a summer’s day after the ferry arrives. And yet the opportunity for quiet observation of rare and special birds doing their own thing is essentially what sells the place.

I hope the DOC planners are listening to the Supporters as intently as the visitors to Tiri listen out for kokako and stitchbird.

– Neville Peat is a Dunedin writer specialising in natural history, the environment and biography