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Bringing back the iconic whio to the Blue Lakes

A community-led project supporting the growth of the iconic whio or blue duck population in the Nelson Lakes and further protecting the area around the Rotoiti Nature Recovery project, which has Kaka, kea, and kiwi populations, was given a boost with nearly $209,000 in funding by Rātā Foundation.

Rātā Foundation formed a strategic partnership with the Friends of Rotoiti through a $208,822 grant to establish one of the largest trap lines in the country – over 52 kilometres. 

The Department of Conservation and local iwi Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō support the collaborative project.

Rātā Foundation Chief Executive Leighton Evans says Rātā has been focusing its strategic funding in the Te Tauihu region on the environment. 

"This project is a major step forward in bringing back the whio population to the Nelson Lakes area. One of the appeals to us was the community-led nature of this project – the Friends of Rotoiti group are motivated local community members putting in huge volunteer hours to benefit the local ecosystem of Nelson Lakes."

The project will see the establishment of a new trap network to safeguard the Travers and Sabine Rivers from stoats and other predators, allowing whio to establish territories and maintain a population in the Nelson Lakes National Park.  It will also close the gap in trap lines already run by DOC and Friends of Rotoiti, providing protection for the Travers flats and slowing the reinvasion of predators into the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project.

Butch Goodwin, Friends of Rotoiti Trustee, says the funding supports building the traps, their deployment, maintenance, and all the research behind the scenes.

'It's a big community effort – with many local people's time gifted towards it.  We also work very closely with DOC.  They have supported us by letting us use their workshops to build the traps and providing us access to a lot of their research and trap testing  - DOC do the science, and we're on the ground getting the traps out."

Whio is a taonga species that Māori has a strong cultural, spiritual, and historical connection.

Mr Goodwin says that Friends of Rotoiti and DOC worked alongside Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō to choose the name for the project – Te whakarauora whio.  It means to bring back, protect, and revive.

Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō Chairperson Hinemoa Conner says the Nelson Lakes area is highly significant to Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, and whio are an important taonga species.

"We are excited to support and be involved in this kaupapa aimed at increasing whio populations and preserving our environment for future generations."

Dr Melissa Griffin, Senior Ranger, Biodiversity for the Department of Conservation, says whio numbers in the area have steadily declined. They were once abundant in the Travers and Sabine Rivers until the introduction of predators like stoats.

"Whio is susceptible to stoats when they are breeding (on the nest) – when they strike, the chicks and eggs are taken, and the adults attacked, which often happens again when they are molting."

"We know from other sites in the Northern South Island that good predator control near rivers is hugely beneficial for the protection of whio."

The traps at the Southern end of Lake Rotoiti extend from the trapping network in the Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project on the Western side of the St Arnaud range. This trap line will provide an additional buffer to protect all our native species and the whio, like the Roroa/Great Spotted Kiwi, kea, and the Kaka.

Rātā, DOC, Friends of Rotoiti, and Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō all have the same goal, says Mr Evans.

"We all want a healthy ecosystem where all taonga (treasure) species can thrive.  Being collaborative means we can pool our collective resources to achieve even greater gains."

For Butch Goodwin, the goal is simple.  He wants to be able to come back in ten years, walk up in the area, see whio up with the Travers and Sabine, hopefully, camp overnight, and hear the sound of the kiwi.