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  • Writer's pictureTim Higham

Taking Responsibility and Living as Part of Nature: Opo Ngawaka on the Tū Mai Taonga Project.

Opo and Elaine Ngawaka live among the largest tākapu or gannet colony in the Hauraki Gulf.

The home is nestled above a hidden cove on Māhuki, one of Broken Islands south of Port Fitzroy on Aotea Great Barrier Island.

The rock-strewn bay offers shelter from most storms, but recently Cyclone Dovi hit the island on a north-west bearing and three metre waves broke Opo’s boats from their moorings causing the loss of a valuable outboard motor.

Word quickly got around the whānau and a Givealittle page has got them back on the water.

Opo was elected as chair of the Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea Trust last July and has brought a quiet, patient presence to the role and this is starting to be seen in its work.

The trust has recently taken on responsibility for Tū Mai Taonga, a project to tackle the problem of feral cats and rats which are decimating Aotea’s native wildlife.

Funding for Tū Mai Taonga is through the Jobs for Nature - Mahi mō te Taiao programme, the government initiative to stimulate jobs and economic opportunity in communities hit hard by the COVID pandemic, with support from Predator Free 2050 Limited, Department of Conservation and Auckland Council.

“Why would we want to take this on,” Opo asks, “there is no mātauranga (indigenous knowledge) in killing cats.”

He sees the presence of introduced predators as part of the process of colonisation.

They are part of the story of loss that Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea has suffered; of land, language, knowledge and the company of once abundant native wildlife.

“There have been many tragedies. This is one of them. We must be involved; it is in our interest.”

“We are not anti-individuals having cats,” says Opo. “It’s the price of being in spaces with others - we need to control ourselves, our kids, our dogs. Similarly, we need to be responsible and avoid contributing to the problem of feral cats.

“The priority is to have those birds, plants, reptiles and insects that should be here, back

among us.”

“We are not doing this to create a zoo, to protect birds so we can look at them, or promote tourism …

“We can live in the ngahere, among native wildlife, and our imprint on it can be quite small.

“There is a way of living in harmony with this place – knowing the patterns, seasons, times, practices. That is mātauranga.

Opo remembers the stories of the old people, about tucking a tuatara into their jackets to keep them cool while muttonbirding on the Mokohinau islands, part of the rohe of Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea.

He’s keen to see these species and traditional practices return.

“Māori understand how everything is connected and important – from whales to kauri – that is why there is always karakia.

He says that exercising kaitiakitanga can also be ‘hard line’. “If the kauri were sick, then no one was allowed into the ngahere.”

Tū Mai Taonga refers to a way of being that is careful, deliberate, and respectful, that makes space and opens long term pathways to bring back the island’s abundance and lost species, he says.

The project’s steering group - which includes representatives of the community and conservation groups - will consider a feasibility study to guide operations later this month.

“Now it is piecemeal,” says Opo. “People are seeing more birds around settled areas because of the efforts of community trapping, but in remote areas the bush is silent.”

We aim to find methods and ways of working that are effective at removing feral cats and rats at landscape-scale.”

With proven success and capability then community and agency aspirations and effort can be joined up around the island, he says.

Since building a home on Māhuki to raise six children nearly 40 years ago, Opo and Elaine have watched the tākapu colony expand - from three to seven nesting areas on the exposed headlands of the western coast.

Each winter when the young gannets have fledged, they harvest guano from the colony edges for their gardens.

The most recent nesting area is on the headland directly above the house. Opo and Elaine hear their calls at night and soaring birds are constantly around them.

This is the way they want Aotea to be.

“The birds, insects, lizards and plants back so we can live among them. A place where they can thrive, and we can thrive.”

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