This is what the end game must look like.
I’ve been in Fiordland opening a box of tieke (South Island saddlebacks) and letting them fly free into forest made safe from predators.
My tieke burst out in a flash of orange and settled into the bough of a tree on Rona Island in Lake Manapouri, where volunteers from the Pomona Island Charitable Trust have spent 12 years trapping rats, possums and stoats and dreaming of such a moment.
A day earlier I had carefully extracted the bird from a mist net on Breaksea Island, tucked knees above feet with my lower fingers and its head between the index and forefingers – a move known as the banded hold – under the careful tutelage of Department of Conservation scientist Troy Makan, part of a translocation team led by Principal Ranger (Biodiversity) Lindsay Wilson.
Placed in a plywood box, my tieke travelled by inflatable, the 22.4 metre Department of Conservation vessel Southern Winds, across open ocean between Breaksea and Doubtful Sound, over Wilmott Pass on a bus, then by launch on Lake Manapouri to the release site.
The cost of its passage was met by the Leslie Hutchins Conservation Foundation, supported by Real Journeys, the company started by Les in the 1950s to take tourists into the region, including on roads built for the Manapouri hydro scheme.
Les became a founding Guardian of Lakes Manapouri, Monowai, and Te Anau, formed after the successful Save Manapouri campaign in the 1960s and early 70s, a milestone in New Zealand’s coming of age.
My journey into Fiordland felt like a lesson in conservation history.
South Island saddlebacks were saved from extinction through 36 birds captured on Big South Cape Island after rats reached it in 1964 and were transferred to nearby islands off Stewart Island. The South Island snipe, bush wren and the greater short-tailed bat weren’t so lucky.
In 1988 170 ha Breaksea Island claimed a new record for the largest island to be cleared of rats, an important conservation milestone. Encouraged, the Department of Conservation tackled bigger and bigger islands with Campbell Island now holding the predator-free record at 11,300 ha.
Tieke have been translocated to more and more islands and as populations reach carrying capacity they are caught and transferred on to new homes. The trip I joined caught a total of 141 birds in 10 days for liberation on Rona Island, and on Dusky Sound’s Pigeon Island and Five Fingers Peninsula with support from the Fiordland Conservation Trust.
The department’s Fiordland Islands Programme is now targeting stoats on Resolution Island. At 21,000 ha – the fifth largest island of the New Zealand mainland – it would provide important new territory for tieke and other birds, like kakapo, South Island robins and hihi that are outgrowing their ranges.
Resolution and neighbouring Pigeon Island were the setting for one of New Zealand’s earliest conservation efforts, when ranger Richard Henry transferred kakapo, kiwi and weka to the island in the 1890s, only to find his dreams ruined by stoats.
DoC biodiversity ranger Pete McMurtrie tells me he’s confident of getting stoats to zero, using a 200km network of traps, including Goodnature A24s, and is working on a detection system to intercept the occasional swimming re-invader.
Fiordland also gave me a glimpse into the future: of what might be happening in a decade when our projects in Taranaki, on Mahia Peninsula and Wellington provide new, safe havens for populations of birds, bats, reptiles and insects thriving in sanctuaries around the country.
Fast forward to 2050 and I can see how the participation and generosity of many will allow our unique wildlife to reclaim every corner of Aotearoa as home.