Korehāhā Whakahau is more than a typical pest eradication programme – it is system change in action.
The aspirational project aims to eliminate possums from 4700ha within Ngāti Awa’s rohe – including Whakatāne, Ōhope and Ōhiwa – without using toxins by 2025, and by embracing traditional Māori knowledge (mātauranga) in the process.
It is the first iwi-lead initiative to be funded by Crown-owned charitable company Predator Free 2050 which is striving to rid Aotearoa of possums, stoats and rats in the coming decades.
But aside from the obvious benefits to te taiao (the environment), this project is out to achieve so much more. Social and economic outcomes, through the creation of jobs, and building the capacity and capability of Ngāti Awa to be kaitiaki (guardians) for the whenua and its resources, are among the main goals.
“We are also using the project to prove our approach to eradication which includes the latest technology, old-school possum trapping know-how, connection and mātauranga,” says Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa Chief Executive Reuben Araroa.
“Our belief systems and our way of life can support eradication methods. Every morning we have waiata and karakia before staff head out into the field. That just helps to ground us before we go out. A lot of the old waiata have references to the landscape we’re operating in, or the seasons or the trees or the birds so it’s all relevant. It’s just a different perspective.”
Reuben says by embracing mātauranga, Ngāti Awa is developing a skilled biodiversity workforce who will be able to care for the land in the best way possible for generations to come.
Korehāhā Whakahau was set up by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa and officially started in June 2020, with funding support from Predator Free 2050. Subsequently, Te Papa Atawhai (DOC) joined the project through the Jobs for Nature programme in November of that year.
The total project cost is over $7.7m but the funding from these two main partners will finish in late 2024 and 2025. Construction cost increases mean the price of modifying existing farm fences to keep possums out of the project area, and erect new predator-proof fencing, has risen. And without further funding, the hard-won gains are at risk of being lost.
Part of a budgeted shortfall for the project will now be covered by BayTrust who will grant $470,000 from its Strategic Partnership Fund over the next two years to ensure Korehāhā Whakahau remains fully staffed and the project’s initial goals can be achieved.
“We are delighted to receive BayTrust funding,” Reuben says. “It will provide us with the best foundations to complete our Korehāhā Whakahau project successfully so we can add to the years of conservation work that has already gone on in the Whakatāne and Ōhope communities.”
Korehāhā Whakahau keeps a running tally of how many possums have been eradicated in the project area – as of mid-December 2022, it was 1024 possums and counting.
“Over 960 of those were caught by us and 57 of them were killed by Whakatāne Kiwi Trust. We’ve got a really good relationship with the trust… we understand how much work they have undertaken over many years to get us to this point and we want to continue to collaborate together in future.”
The project area is bounded by Whakatāne River in the west, the Pacific Ocean in the north, and Ohiwa Harbour in the east, all of which are natural barriers to possums. The southern boundary requires predator-proof fencing and Korehāhā Whakahau is working with private landowners to negotiate how the eradication strategy can be rolled out. Existing fencing on Ngāti Awa-owned farms is being modified to keep possums out, and a virtual trapping line using Bluetooth technology is also in place.
“Every morning when we come in for our operations hui, we know which traps have gone off and which traps need servicing,” Reuben explains. “So rather than having to walk the lines every day to find dead possums, we can go straight to the trap in question.”
While it’s impossible to know how close they are to their possum-free goal, Reuben says camera evidence suggests numbers are now very low. Korehāhā Whakahau intends to establish a business unit at the project’s conclusion in 2025 to see how other pest plants or species can be targeted using the knowledge gained over the previous five years.
“Long term we want to develop a system that enables reconnection, restores the taiao, addresses climate change and provides for the wellbeing of not only Ngāti Awa but also the entire community living in our rohe.
“We believe we can do this by enabling employment, providing broader animal and plant pest knockdown, coordinated community effort and mātauranga indicators to support a healthier taiao.”