The future is Tiritiri

When it rains, it’s very quiet on Tiritiri Matangi, except for the white-noise pattering on the canopy. When the shower passes over, there’s a pause in the forest, like a singer taking a breath before her first note, and then it begins: the fluting of korimako, the buzz of a stitchbird, the propeller-like whirr of a kererū flapping heavily through the canopy.

Ahead of me, there’s an unfamiliar chuckling, and a heavy grey shadow on a branch.

I’ve walked hundreds of kilometres through New Zealand’s national parks and visited some of the country’s remotest places, but I’ve never seen a kōkako. There are two right here—a minute’s walk from the wharf, an hour’s ferry ride from the middle of Auckland city—gently murmuring at each other, hopping from tree to tree. The black mask over their eyes makes them look like old-fashioned bank robbers, or guests at a masquerade ball.

I grew up on one side of the Waitematā, and now I live on the other. I’ve spent almost my entire life in Auckland, but this is my first visit to Tiritiri. The island is, according to TripAdvisor, Auckland’s number one tourist attraction.

I’m delighted that it hasn’t been developed by a tourism company, but rather by an army of weekend warriors who have spent the last couple of decades planting hundreds of thousands of trees, transforming the island from empty farmland to a well-stocked bird sanctuary.

Volunteers still do most of the work. The weekend I visit, a group is rebuilding a washed-out trail, and another dozen are tour guides, explaining the ecology and history of the island to small groups of visitors. The tour fee goes towards the island’s upkeep.

Our volunteer guide, Trish, has a demonstration photo book, so that she can show us kororā when the nesting boxes turn out to be empty, kohekohe flowers when the tree turns out not to be in bloom, and a little bag of pohutukawa seeds so that we can see how tiny they are. When my friend asks her about the difference between mānuka and kānuka, she’s thrilled, and whips out a botanical illustration.

Some tourists, she says, book their Tiritiri tour before their flights to New Zealand, and it’s the first thing they do—an early-morning arrival at the airport and they’re on the island by 10.15am. Tiritiri is the first impression we make.

Nowadays we’re used to hearing about the environment in a state of perpetual decline, but Tiritiri is an example of the opposite: we came, we saw, we conquered, we regretted, we restored.

In some places, we’re getting closer to the end of the trajectory than the start. There are so many Archey’s frogs—an IUCN Red List species—in a six-kilometre-square area of Whareorino that researchers have to be careful not to stand on them during monitoring. When urban streams are ‘daylighted’ in Auckland—opened to the air, rather than funnelled through concrete pipes—eels return as the streams’ health improves.

And in those places where restoration and recovery are not within the Department of Conservation’s budget—as Tiritiri wasn’t—they remain within our capability to improve, as Tiritiri was. Someone had to stick the first spade in the ground at Tiri, plant the first plant, release the first bird.