When is a spade not just a spade? When it’s a symbol of the collective effort of a group of passionate volunteers who spent decades creating a haven for our native birds and other wildlife. 

In this blog by Auckland Museum’s Jane Groufsky, Project Curator History and Dr Josie Galbraith, Project Curator Natural Sciences, we look at the amazing conservation success story of Tiritiri Matangi island, and share how Auckland Museum is acknowledging this story in an exciting new gallery.  

This spade was one of many used by the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SOTM) to plant 280,000 trees over a 10-year period on Tiritiri Matangi Island, an internationally renowned conservation island in the Hauraki Gulf off the Whangaparāoa Peninsula. In 1984, a planting programme began to help speed up the transformation of the island back to habitat suitable for native birdlife. Thirty different species of native trees and shrubs were planted on the island, which had been largely cleared and farmed since the mid-19th century.  Volunteers formed planting teams which were known as the “spade brigade”, using distinctive pointed spades to plant seedlings that had germinated in the island’s nursery.

Thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, and the vision of the University of Auckland scientists who hatched the idea, Tiritiri Matangi Island is now home to many threatened animals and a global flagship for conservation. The project pushed the boundaries of where and how conservation was done, and who was ‘allowed’ to do conservation. Before Tiritiri Matangi, conservation of critically endangered species in New Zealand was typically the domain of a few privileged scientists and happened in remote ‘wilderness’ areas or on inaccessible offshore islands.  However, this project laid the foundations of the community-led-conservation movement here in New Zealand, making conservation and kaitiakitanga something that we can all be a part of, and are all responsible for.

Image: Spade, gift of Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi, 2020.11.01

Passionate volunteers are at the heart of Tiritiri Matangi’s success

SOTM’s founding Chairperson, Jim Battersby, was the enthusiastic catalyst that led the formation of a formal supporters group in 1988 (SOTM), after he discovered that the island only had one rake. Since then, the SOTM has both financially and physically supported the conservation programme. 

The Spade Brigade planting trees, by G Thew, 1989. 
Courtesy of the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Inc

As New Zealand’s first ‘Open Sanctuary,’ Tiritiri Matangi was one of the first places (and still is one of the few places) where the public could go and see critically endangered species. The island’s location, so close to New Zealand’s largest city, has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to experience and connect with our special biodiversity. It attracts many international visitors - some of considerable fame themselves, including David Attenborough and Lucy Lawless.

SOTM gifted the spade referenced earlier in this piece to Auckland Museum so we can recognise the importance of communities in protecting our precious biodiversity. Tiritiri Matangi is a well-known Auckland conservation story and as such is represented in our Natural Sciences collection through specimens, like the tīeke (North Island saddleback Philesturnus rufusater) pictured here. This spade, worn from use by hundreds of volunteers planting thousands of trees, reflects the human endeavour behind the ecosanctuary. It will be on display in our new Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland gallery, opening early next year. 

Image: Tīeke (Saddleback), LB11808

Tiritiri Matangi may not be far as the kererū flies from central Auckland, but it’s still a bit of a journey for humans. To bring a taste of the sanctuary into the gallery for everyone to enjoy, the team developed an interactive bird wall and commissioned local artist and illustrator Erin Forsyth to create a series of detail-rich paintings of the island’s avian residents. Visitors can press a button to hear each bird’s call but there’s a catch: to replicate the dawn chorus in all its glory, you have to work together. It’s impossible for one person to push all the buttons at once, so you’ll have to get people to help you which, of course, replicates the spirit that has made the Tiritiri Matangi project such a success. 

Ultimately, the aspiration is for these species not just to thrive on predator-free, offshore islands, but in our backyards. Birds that are born and bred on Tiritiri Matangi have now been successfully translocated to the mainland sites in the Waitākere Ranges, Tāwharanui and Wenderholm, where more of us have a chance of spotting them while out exploring. Conservation can start at home and it’s an ongoing process so, one day, we can all have a saddleback in our gardens.

Image: Kererū by Erin Forsyth for the bird wall in the new Tāmaki Herenga Waka gallery