Dangling by a thread
A head for heights helps safeguard the future of a glorious New Zealand native
Pete Shaw is a Trustee of the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, a privately-funded organisation providing direction and funding for the restoration of threatened species of fauna and flora.
Garry was just one badly-tied knot away from lying broken and twisted at the foot of the cliff against which he was now hanging. A sheer drop to the weather-worn boulders 60m below. A fall now would kill him. No question.
As he dangled precariously, knocking fist-sized chunks of loose rock into the void, my insides seethed with anxiety. And I started to question the wisdom of what we were doing deep in the back-blocks and, seemingly, a million miles away from any help.
I manage the operations of the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust which runs eight regeneration and restoration projects involving threatened or near-extinct native New Zealand flora and fauna. One of these is New Zealand’s rarest wild shrub, the Kakabeak, a member of the pea family also known by its botanical name of Clianthus maximus or as ngutukākā in te reo.
So severely have imported fauna impacted the plant that at one point there were only 80 specimens known to be growing in the wild across the whole of New Zealand. Exactly three months before, though, I had found three more. They were a kilometre away across inaccessible terrain and clinging to the side of a cliff-face but their spectacular large, crimson flowers drew my eye and they were clearly visible through a spotting scope.
The Kakabeak flowers in spring. The curved blooms hang in heavy bunches and look just like the beak of the parrot after which they’re named. In years gone by hundreds of plants grouped together would create a stunning spectacle. But today only a few lonely specimens remain in the wild, clinging to the inhospitable cliffs in a desperate defence against goats, deer and other exotic browsers.
Although grown widely in gardens these domestic plants are all derivatives from just one or two wild plants. They have been interbred and have little or no genetic value. The result is that this magnificent plant holds the highest possible threatened plant ranking: ‘Nationally Critical’.
They’re so rare, these plants, that they all have names and I christened the three new discoveries Alan’s Plant, Helen’s Plant and Rachel’s Plant. This was in honour of the sterling efforts being put into Kakabeak conservation by DOC stalwarts Alan Lee and Helen Jonas. And in appreciation of the ambassadorial role of Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust patron, Kiwi icon Rachel Hunter.
Material gathered from newly-discovered Kakabeak play a crucial role in hauling the species back from the brink of extinction. Seeds inject added vitality to the gene pool and enhance the robustness of the population, helping wild Kakabeak avoid the genetic flimsiness of their nursery-bred cousins. And cuttings are used by Dr Gary Houliston, plant geneticist at Landcare Research, to generate DNA profiles for each plant. These help greatly in the conservation effort.
Which is why, early that morning, four of us had set out for the bluffs on which I’d spotted the three new plants. My colleagues were a friend of mine, Gus Garaway, and keen climbers Garry Kane and Brett Gilmore. A long drive and a tough bit of bush-bashing had brought us to the edge of the cliff from which Garry now swung, his life hanging by a thread. Which, at that moment, is what his abseil rope looked like.
Garry was hanging above one of the bushes, carefully harvesting its seed pods, each packed to bursting with small black seeds. As my guts writhed at the sight of the cliff-face falling away, and the sound of loose rock clattering onto the boulder-field below, I was comforted marginally by the look of intense concentration and matter-of-fact calmness on his face. Here was a man in total control of his environment, doing what he loves to do.
That was when I realised that my earlier misgivings were unjustified. The work is vital and exercises like this are absolutely necessary if some of our less well-known species are not going to slip away, unnoticed, into obscure extinction.
Our work with Kakabeak has been particularly rewarding because, given the rarity of the plant, the results are exponential. Where once science knew of just 80 wild-growing plants there are now nearly twice that number, many of which have been grown from wild seed and put back into the bush.
The seed gathered by Garry in this single expedition alone resulted in 300 seedlings. Many of these will find their way back to our wild places, re-planted in places where they’ll be safe from predators. The rest will be cared for in four specially-designed ‘seed nurseries’ we’ve established, or helped establish, around the North Island – from the Bay of Islands to Hawke’s Bay.
We hope that these nurseries will, over time, yield millions of seeds and masses of seedlings with which conservationists around the country will be able to re-establish viable colonies of wild-growing Kakabeak.
It was this vision that I was holding on to as Garry swung round in his harness and flashed me a smile of triumph: “All good now, mate, I’m starting the climb back up. Job done.”