Reviving Rotoroa Island and reinventing a socio-ecosystem

Rotoroa Island, December 2015It’s been a summer of a lot of travel, invariably including a number of ecological restoration projects. Rotoroa Island is truly unique.

I travelled to Rotoroa Island in late December for a couple of nights, simply to have a good look around. It was one of those days where the movement of each wave so fragmented the light that everything, viewed through my squinted eyes, appeared utterly luminous. Rotoroa sits between two privately owned Islands: Ponui with its forests, farms and vineyards, and tiny Pakatoa, formerly a resort. The comparatively huge sprawl of Waiheke is a short ferry ride away.

Although each island’s history is unique, to imagine using an island in the Hauraki Gulf as a drug and alcohol rehabilition facility is to step back into an entirely different modus operandi surrounding healthcare and wellbeing. The history of Rotoroa is presented in a purpose-built museum: there are grainy monochrome photos of large gardens and a surprising amount of large wooden buildings, most of which have since been torn down. There are lists of rules and regulations concerning expected behaviour, and most precious, are recorded interviews with past staff members and their families along with island residents.
Historic graveyard
The Salvation Army moved their rehabilitation programme back to the mainland in 2005 creating a spectacular opportunity to restore public access to the island. With generous backing from philanthropists who founded The Rotoroa Island Trust, restoration quickly got underway. Professionals were enlisted to get the job done: 25,000 pine trees (planted around the perimeter of the island in the 1970s) were cut down and mulched; cats and rodents (possums and stoats were never present) were eradicated and over 350,000 native species were planted. Native forest remnants on surrounding islands provided a clue as to which species to plant.

The thoroughness of the job is impressive. As a veteran weed spotter, I had a hard time finding anything major – a couple of pine seedlings; a fragment of gorse, and half a dozen or so agapanthus nestled on a clay bank. It’s not as if the island is particularly small: at 82ha there are plenty of nooks and crannies not only for weeds but for mice to hide in. The Rotoroa Island Trust is working closely with Auckland Zoo to reintroduce flora and fauna for educational, research and conservation purposes. The timing of my visit was serendipitous – a kiwi release drew many people to the island to catch a glimpse of a bird very few will ever come across in the wild.

While species such as Takahe would never have been resident, a few were introduced to give the public a chance to see some of our rarer fauna. Watching Takahe foraging is quite meditative – they go about their job in a leisurely manner, taking time to choose which morsel of grass to clip with their impressive beaks. Weka were introduced much earlier and now roam all over the island in their hundreds. They’re fascinated by the things people bring… they have a predilection for shiny things like phone, and curiously, socks, which they quickly hide among the thick plantings of flax.

The next phase of the project is to build up a solid base of volunteers to help with managing visitors and the ongoing restoration – this is where the project differs to many others I’ve visited where volunteers form the foundation. The financial has meant that restoration progress on the island has effectively been fast-tracked, in comparison to projects that slowly gain momentum as volunteer numbers and project support are accrued over time. If you are keen on visiting, the former supervisor’s house provides a cheap accommodation option, and a well-maintained network of paths and interpretative signage enables easy walking around the island. Ferries leave from downtown Auckland at 8:45 and return in the late afternoon.
Supervisor's House
After visiting the island, my interest in examining different project governance models in terms of their ecological as well as social outcomes was piqued… but further research will have to wait for another day. In the mean time, I’ll continue with citizen science and community environmental restoration-related contracts, and perhaps dream up a restoration and science project myself – though on a much, much lower budget!

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