Flagship for conservation, Neville Peat

Chris Maclean
Whitcombe Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 473 06166 X

A hilly chip off the old block, Kapiti Island lies alluringly close to the mainland – a Kapiti Coast landmark with a reputation considerably out of proportion to its modest size (ten kilometres long by about two wide). Its reputation arises not only from an intriguing and at times traumatic human past but also from its prominence as a wildlife sanctuary.

Anyone who has roamed its forests after splashing ashore from a boat can testify to a special atmosphere, signalled by the calls and confiding behaviour of kaka, saddleback and various other threatened birds and reinforced by the knowledge that – after a colonial period of clear-felling, fires and farming – nature is now allowed to run its course here. The island receives about 10,000 visitors a year; most pop over from Paraparaumu, a ten-minute boat ride away. With a Department of Conservation landing permit secured, they want to treat themselves to a natural tonic.

Chris Maclean’s tribute to Kapiti confirms the island’s special qualities. In 15 chapters, Maclean provides nook-and-cranny coverage of the island’s natural and human stories from geological origins and Maori creation stories to its status today as a coveted wildlife sanctuary. The eras between provide rich pickings for a historian. Waves of Maori occupation date from the 11th century and involve six iwi, the last being Ngati Toa and the formidable Te Rauparaha. There followed the contact and colonial periods, featuring whalers and farmers, land deals and a clash of cultures. Towards the end of the 19th century, Kapiti gained a new role as a flora and fauna reserve; it remains a flagship for conservation.

This book was motivated by the 1997 centenary of Kapiti’s wildlife sanctuary status. But although it portrays the island’s wildlife values and the marathon efforts to eradicate pests such as possums and rats, it gives just as much prominence to human history. Te Rauparaha’s story looms large, befitting a chief whose exploits have become legendary. Kapiti was his fortress through the 1820s and early 1830s – critical contact years. It was from Kapiti that Te Rauparaha launched his notorious raids on southern tribes, aided by Pakeha muskets and ships. In 1840, the great Ngati Toa chief signed the Treaty of Waitangi on Kapiti. Actually, he signed the Treaty twice – an important endorsement as far as the colonial authorities were concerned. Maori influence on Kapiti waned after 1840: by 1850, no Maori were
living there. A few families came back in the 20th century to rekindle their claim to land at the northern end of the island that has always been excluded from the reserve – a sore point at times for those responsible for protecting vulnerable wildlife.

Kapiti is a microcosm of the New Zealand scene, present and past – in terms of both Maori-Pakeha relations and tensions over exploitation or protection of resources – and Maclean correctly and powerfully draws that analogy. He goes further: “the situation on Kapiti reflects the challenge facing the nation at the end of the 20th century.” He reports a “worrying divisiveness”: the centenary of the nature reserve was celebrated in 1997 at two different ceremonies.

A poignant note was struck at the December 1997 unveiling of carved figures at the visitors’ shelter. Commissioning the carvings, the Department of Conservation had asked that they depict atua such as Tane and Tangaroa but when the three faces were unveiled at the dawn ceremony, the moko were those of three Ngati Toa chiefs who lived on the island – Te Rauparaha, Te Pehi and Nohorua. Clearly, Maori do not wish to relinquish their stake on Kapiti.

The conservation ethic is equally entrenched. Although declared a reserve in 1897, the island really did not function as one for many years. Goats, sheep and cattle ran wild, and government administration was muddled, with at least four departments involved in the early 1900s. At one point the Ministry of Public Health proposed using Kapiti as a leper colony.

It was not until 1911, when James Bennett was appointed caretaker, that Kapiti began to function as a reserve. Bennett made a start on ridding the island of its introduced wild animals, and his work was later vigorously pursued by Captain Val Sanderson, a founder of Forest and Bird. It has taken the best part of a century to achieve their dreams. The intractable possum and ubiquitous rat were finally eradicated in the 1990s, making Kapiti one of our largest predator-free islands. Maclean can see Kapiti’s sanctuary role extending to include New Zealand’s most critically endangered forest bird species, the kakapo. It is already the stronghold for little spotted kiwi, which has disappeared from the mainland, and hosts populations of saddleback and stitchbird.

Throughout the book, Maclean goes to some lengths to provide a wider context for elements of the Kapiti story; for example, the origins of Ngati Toa, the exploring voyages of James Cook (who charted Kapiti as Entry Island) and the reserving of islands for indigenous flora and fauna protection. This all serves to heighten Kapiti’s place in New Zealand history. The context extends to the surrounding sea, now a marine reserve and a new frontier for conservation.

Each chapter opens with a summary or scene-setting text – an imaginative approach. The introduction, titled “Sanctuary of Spirits”, is treated similarly. I never encountered the spirits Maclean describes during my short time helping catch little spotted kiwi for transfer to other island sanctuaries, but this book has radically changed my perspective of the island.

The book is well designed and brilliantly illustrated with photographs modern and historic, paintings, sketches, diagrams, maps and deeds. I do have two quibbles, though. Too often, material in the main body of the text is paraphrased in extended captions for the illustrations: the flow is already broken by the illustrations without bothering the reader with the same material. Another is that when producing books around the turn of a century, publishers should avoid the use of the term “last century”.

Overall, Maclean captures the island, its life and times in magnificent style. If Kapiti is a natural tonic, this book is a welcome prescription.

Neville Peat is a Dunedin-based writer and photographer, with a special interest in natural history.

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Posted in History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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