A growing abundance of animal life in Wellington is galvanizing residents to take the protection of native fauna into their own hands.
An ecological revolution in New Zealand’s capital is underway, as the return of native bird species and close encounters with orca and whales fuel a volunteer conservation movement among Wellington’s residents.
The city is seeing an explosion in wildlife thanks to the presence of Zealandia, the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary located just 10 minutes from downtown. The sanctuary aims to restore its part of Wellington to the state it was in 700 years ago, before the arrival of humans and predators like rats and stoats led to the extinction of dozens of species.
Zealandia’s 225-hectare (550-acre) property is surrounded by a 8.6-kilometer (5.3-mile) fence to keep pests out, allowing endangered birds to thrive and venture across the city. After 20 years, it has become so successful that the increased personal experience of native wildlife is galvanizing residents to double down on efforts to eradicate pests.
“In this era when there are so many negative signals from the world — global species decline, Covid, climate change — there’s something people can do in their own backyards,” said James Willcocks, project director at Predator Free Wellington, a community-based organization that encourages people to get involved in pest eradication. “It links them to their neighbors, it links them to their community, and pretty soon you’re part of a bigger movement that’s delivering on a shared vision.”
Heeding that call, Wellingtonians have mobilized to set thousands of traps all around the city, including in private gardens.
The group, which is aligned with the New Zealand government’s aspiration to make the nation predator-free by 2050, initially targeted Wellington’s eastern Miramar peninsula. It succeeded in ridding the area of stoats, weasels and Norway rats in January last year, with only a few ship rats still to be eradicated. That was a major breakthrough for kororā, the native penguins that nest on Miramar beaches, and has led to a 50% increase in native birds on the peninsula.
Those efforts, which are now being replicated in other parts of the city, have helped to ensure that Zealandia’s birds can safely visit parks and suburban backyards.
“Our mission is to radically transform how people live with nature in towns and cities,” said Zealandia Chief Executive Danielle Shanahan. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted this level of success in terms of the bird community that’s now flowing beyond the fence — species that have been gone from this region for over 100 years.”
The most obvious conservation success story is the endangered kākā, a large, green, cheeky parrot whose numbers dwindled due to habitat loss and predation. Today they are a more common sight in Wellington city than on tramping tracks through remote native bush. The same is true of the tūi, a boisterous bird whose distinctive white throat tuft resembles a clerical collar, and the colorful kererū pigeon.
An annual Wellington bird-count shows that sightings of kākā have more than tripled since 2011, while sightings of kererū and tūi have more than doubled.
“Ten to 20 years ago I would have had to walk into a national park for hours to see a kākā and I’d maybe see one,’’ said Willcocks. “Our kids see them at the bus stop every day.’’
It’s not just bird encounters that are giving Wellingtonians a heightened appreciation for animal life. Residents also get a front-row seat to visiting marine mammals as the city forms a natural amphitheater around its harbor. Dolphins and fur seals are common, while orca arrive several times a year to hunt stingrays.
“It’s pretty extraordinary when we have orca visible from our downtown buildings,” said Daniela Biaggio, urban ecology manager at Wellington City Council. “There’s a childlike sense of wonder when you see a dolphin or a whale.”
In 2018 the city played host to a southern right whale, which delighted onlookers with its antics just meters from the waterfront — a welcome return for a species that once used the harbor as a breeding ground before whaling all but wiped them out. According to urban legend, settlers in the early 1800s complained of being kept awake at night by the noise of whales.
“Southern right whales used to breed all around New Zealand in the sheltered harbors,” said Hannah Hendriks, marine technical adviser at the Department of Conservation in Wellington. “Every now and then you will get the odd one venturing in. Hopefully that’s a good sign that maybe in the future, eventually, we’ll get them breeding back here again.”
“Getting close to nature and observing wildlife in its natural habitat is great for the soul,” said Hendriks. “It makes you feel really good, it makes you feel like the environment is, maybe, okay.”
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