How Maori stepped in to save a towering tree essential to their identity

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – In an ancient grove in northern New Zealand, the mighty evergreen tree known as Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Fores...


WELLINGTON, New Zealand – In an ancient grove in northern New Zealand, the mighty evergreen tree known as Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, is threatened by the encroachment of a deadly enemy.

It is the largest known living kauri tree: 177 feet high, 53 feet in circumference. Kauri, native to New Zealand, is among the most durable trees in the world, and Tāne Mahuta has been growing in the Waipoua Forest for around 2,000 years – longer than New Zealand has been inhabited by humans. It is named after the god of forests in Maori mythology, who is said to have separated the sky father and the earth mother to create a space conducive to life.

But Tāne Mahuta stands only 200 feet from another kauri whose roots are infected with an incurable disease. Kauri dieback, caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism, has reached pandemic proportions and brought an already threatened species one step closer to extinction. Nearby, five other kauris are also infected.

Given the age and size of the kauri, many Maori consider them distant ancestors. Tāne Mahuta is particularly special to some, for the connection to the Maori creation story. “The threat of kauri dieback to the species is a threat to Maori identity itself,” said Taoho Patuawa, scientific director of the local Maori tribe, Te Roroa.

This tribe and others are racing to protect the remaining kauri before it’s too late. After more than a decade of government inaction and spotty scientific research, Maori have taken the lead in conservation efforts, hoping to buy time to develop a cure.

Kauri dieback, discovered in 2006, is spread by movement of infested soil, often via mud on shoes. Once near a kauri, disease spores infect its roots, causing them to rot. The disease can infect other plants, but it is particularly devastating for kauri.

When it reaches the trunk, lesions burst. Kauri starts bleeding yellow pus-like gum in an effort to cover her sides with thick armor. But it is already too late. The pathogen corrodes internal tissues that transport nutrients and water, essentially starving the tree to death. When the kauri die, so does much of the surrounding plant life that depends on it.

Injection of phosphite can slow the progression of the disease, but there is no cure.

In 2017, then New Zealand Forestry Minister Shane Jones describe the government’s response to the dieback of the kauris so far as “an absolute disaster”. Experts have predicted that the species, which once covered millions of acres in New Zealand, will disappear within three decades.

Maori researchers, who are often more connected to communities affected by kauri dieback, have been disproportionately those calling for action. Melanie Mark-Shadbolt, an environmental sociologist, said the government had not taken kauri dieback, or Maori concerns about it, seriously. The government’s biodiversity protection scheme, she said, “provides nothing at all for Maori”.

Nick Waipara, a scientist specializing in kauri dieback, said the competitive system of science funding has directed money towards the priorities of non-Maori researchers.

For a decade, he said, work on the disease has been “problematic, underfunded, piecemeal and ad hoc.”

The mismatch had devastating consequences. “I’ve seen with my own eyes, when we do long-term monitoring of plots, places where in some years we haven’t found a single live plant,” Dr Waipara said.

Snow Tane, chief executive of development group Te Roroa, said that around 2015 the tribe began to realize that not only was kauri dieback a huge threat to New Zealand’s forests, but that little help was forthcoming. on the way.

“We could have waited for something to happen, or we could have gotten the ball rolling ourselves,” Mr Tane said.

Thus, the tribe has posted kauri ambassadors on the tracks and near the entrances to the forest to explain to visitors the significance of the trees and to ensure that no one strays too close. The tribe had previously worked with the New Zealand Department of Conservation to install a boardwalk near Tāne Mahuta to prevent visitors from spreading infected soil near its roots. In 2018, after camera surveillance showed dozens of people were still avoiding ambassadors and running off the track to get closer to his trunk, guardrails were also lifted.

The election of a centre-left government in 2017 also provided a boost. New biodiversity minister Damien O’Connor pushed through tougher government policies on kauri dieback. According to Dr Waipara and Ms Mark-Shadbolt, this has prompted organizations that fund scientific research to pay more attention to kauri solutions.

Stuart Anderson, deputy director general of biosecurity at the Department of Primary Industries, said the agency was committed to working with Maori and noted that of the NZ$8 million ($5.3 million ) that it would spend on kauri dieback this year, half will go directly to Maori groups.

Even these measures, however, seemed insufficient to control the disease. So the Te Roroa tribe went further, exercising their authority as guardians of the Waipoua Forest to close many of their hiking trails entirely. When the government imposed Covid-19 closures in 2020, Te Roroa took the opportunity to impose a rāhui, or temporary entry ban, on the entire forest.

These restrictions have sparked controversy. Dr Waipara said forest managers and scientists he knew had been violently threatened by people who oppose the restrictions or even deny the existence of the disease.

He compared it to the backlash against efforts to contain Covid-19. “There are similar issues, stress, threats, denials and pretty horrible behavior from some people,” he said.

Still, monitoring by Te Roroa indicated the restrictions were working. According to Mr Patuawa, scientific director of Te Roroa, they were only dealing with “pockets of infected trees in decline”. Te Roroa was satisfied enough to raise his rāhui over Waipoua Forest later in 2020.

Mr Patuawa warned that this would change if kauri dieback spreads closer to Tāne Mahuta and other key kauri trees.

“New Zealand has to let go of the sense of entitlement that we have to be where we want to be,” he said. “We have to be a little more sensitive to these beautiful places.”

But, for now, advocates hope Maori-led interventions have given scientists enough time to save the kauri. And even with the threat Tāne Mahuta faces, Dr Waipara said: “I think he is in very good hands.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Maori stepped in to save a towering tree essential to their identity
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