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How an ecosanctuary in the heart of Wellington is getting urbanites in touch with nature

Zealandia ecosanctuary from above.

The world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, Zealandia, opened its doors in our capital city almost two decades ago, and since then, its existence has helped see the city’s native bird population explode – and encouraged people to do their bit in their local ecosystem, with National Geographic  calling the city an ‘ecological triumph’. We talked with its manager of conservation and research Dr Danielle Shanahan about how the park is changing people’s perception of conservation, while helping balance Wellington’s urban needs with its ecological needs.

Zealandia (formerly the Karori Sanctuary) is an ecosanctuary that was first opened in 1999. It had an ambitious 500-year vision: to restore Wellington valley’s forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state, when New Zealand’s native animals roamed lush, predator-free lands without a worry in the world.

This is because when people arrived on Aotearoa’s shores with predators in tow, the cats, rats and possums hit the native bird population especially hard, as they hadn’t evolved to have defences against such predators – think flightless kiwis.

Zealandia wanted to try reverse some of this damage reaped by humans on the local ecosystem, and in the near 20 years since it opened in 1995, it has made massive strides in the conservation of New Zealand’s native species.

This is probably because it takes its title as the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary very seriously. The fence itself is just 3km from the city centre, yet over 8km long and covers more than 500 acres. It’s also worth more than $1.2 million, is over six feet tall and consists of a tight metal mesh to keep out rats, cats, possums, stoats and other unwelcomed creatures. Several enclosures inside the sanctuary even have fences tight enough to keep out mice, which are renown for squeezing through the tiniest of spaces.

And now, it’s seeing the results. The organisation has reintroduced 18 species of native animals back into the area, some of which had been previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years. Birds such as the tūī, kākā and kererū, which were once extremely rare in to be spotted in the region, are all now common sights around central Wellington.

This is called ‘the halo effect’, as bird species introduced to Zealandia have now reached such great numbers, they have begun to spill beyond the sanctuary’s fence into the surrounding landscape.

It has now also diversified past birds into introducing other endangered species into the sanctuary, such as kākahi (freshwater mussels).

Dr Danielle Shanahan, the manager of conservation and research at Zealandia, says for her personally, the most rewarding outcome has been the effect the sanctuary is having on the wider city.

“Wellington is now one of the only cities in the world where some aspects of native biodiversity is actually on the rise, which is pretty special,” Shanahan says.

“Of course, that’s not all directly due to Zealandia – there has been a lot of predator control and planting by councils and community groups. However, having this predator-free environment in the middle of Wellington has enabled us to reintroduce these rare native species.

“We now have tīeke (saddleback) nesting in Polhill Reserve, just a stone throw from Cuba St. That didn’t happen outside of a sanctuary or protected island for over 100 years, so it’s incredibly special.”

The tīeke (saddleback) in Zealandia. Photo: Janice McKenna

But Zealandia’s influence extends further than this. Shanahan says having the sanctuary on their back doorstep has changed how many residents view and live with nature, as the increased biodiversity, such as raucous kākā flying overhead, is hard to ignore.

“By interacting with these taonga, residents have been empowered to care for them. So we see this explosion of interest in planting natives, trapping predators, and responsible pet ownership,” she says.

But repopulating our native wildlife can have unintended challenges for urban dwellers, too. Some locals are calling kākā’s a “pest” now they are spreading in large numbers throughout the city, which Shanahan says is a good challenge to wrestle with.

“For so long we have lived separate from much of New Zealand’s wildlife, and we are now facing the challenge of re-learning how to live with nature,” she says.

“Of course there are many upsides, and pretty much everyone I talk to is thrilled to see species like kākā in the city. However, we do still need to be mindful of the challenges. Some of the undesirable behaviours happen because the birds are being fed in people’s backyards. This means they congregate in large numbers and get high energy from food—like people, this is enough to make even the most well behaved kākā more boisterous.”

A kākā in Wellington city, which is now a common sight. Photo: Judi Lapsley Miller

So, aside from the odd naysayer, are New Zealanders more receptive to caring about our endangered animals in 2018? Shanahan says while our wildlife is certainly part of our cultural identity, for a long time, conservation has been left to the ‘experts’.

“But that simply isn’t enough if we want to make a real difference to our future,” she says. “The changes we are seeing in Wellington are demonstrating that it is in fact everybody’s business — and there is plenty each of us can do. That change in perspective is what is needed more broadly.”

In terms of lessons other New Zealand cities could take from Wellington, Shanahan says every place will have its own different ecosystems and civic and environmental needs, but the common theme between all these varying factors is people.

“Right from the beginning, Zealandia captured people’s imaginations, and has been engaging and empowering people ever since,” she says. “At the same time, the sanctuary itself wouldn’t have been possible without the help of hundreds of volunteers, and so there is a strong sense of guardianship across the community.

“The same goes beyond the fence in the wider Wellington area. If people are encouraged and taught how to care for their own natural spaces, they can take a level of ownership or guardianship of it. People want to engage with nature, so it’s about providing them with avenues to do so.”

A recent initiative of the sanctuary was to create a research centre to explore this connection between the economy, people’s health and wellbeing and their environment, called the Zealandia Centre for People and Nature.

Shanahan says it was created off the back of the transformation happening in Wellington in terms of biodiversity and human behaviour. The centre brings together more than 40 researchers who are already working with the sanctuary under one roof, generating knowledge to tackle conservation challenges affecting urban areas throughout the world.

“There is an amazing opportunity to learn more about what it means to live in a nature-rich city, as there is so much we don’t know about the impact of living closely with nature on things like the economy, people’s health and wellbeing, and conservation outcomes,” Shanahan says.

Research by the organisation has already found that spending time in nature can significantly reduce levels of high blood pressure, depression and stress, and can make communities feel more connected, but she says there are still more questions to tackle.

Overall, Shanahan says that while the organisation doesn’t know exactly what the future holds for humanity’s relationship with the natural world, it can equip future generations with the tools and knowledge they need to shape their own nature-rich future.

 “That’s essentially what the Centre is doing – empowering tomorrow’s kaitiaki (guardians),” she says.

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