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Forward thinking saves critically-endangered plants from Gabrielle’s wrath

Hundreds of ‘Noah’s Arks’ keep wild kākābeak gene-bank from being buried in silt

A timely decision to distribute material from an endangered plant species widely across Hawke’s Bay, as part of a regional species recovery programme, may just have saved New Zealand’s rarest wild shrub from calamity.


More than 1,000 specimens of the glorious but near-extinct wild kākābeak, or ngutukākā, were distributed by conservationists and volunteers to schools, marae and gardens across the district - just months before a plant nursery at the centre of the national campaign to save the kākābeak was inundated by three meters of floodwater during Cyclone Gabrielle.


Plant Hawke’s Bay, owned and run by well-known biodiversity champion Marie Taylor, was buried in 10-20cm of silt, along with two-thirds of the adult plants from which the distributed plants were propagated and an important collection of seed from wild-grown kākābeak.


Although grown widely in gardens, domestic kākābeak are all derivatives of one wild plant that have been interbred and have unknown ability to survive in the wild. In years gone by hundreds of wild plants grouped together would create a stunning spectacle from the Bay of Islands to southern Hawke’s Bay. 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.


Exotic predators have impacted kākābeak so severely in the bush that there are only about 100 kākābeak plants known to exist in the wild. That is why kakabeak holds New Zealand’s highest possible threatened plant ranking, ‘Nationally Critical’, and the loss of the seed and the collection from wild stock at Plant Hawke’s Bay could potentially have been so devastating for its recovery.


“We were so incredibly lucky that we were able to distribute so many young plants, descendants of wild stock that came from wild seed, before Gabrielle hit,” said James Powrie of Redaxe Forestry Intelligence, one of the founders of The Urban Kākābeak Project. It aims to increase the propagation of the endangered kākābeak/Ngutukākā through the development of a regional urban seed bank.


Much of the wild seed used to propagate the 50 plants destroyed at Plant Hawke’s Bay, and the more than 1,000 young plants distributed across the region by The Urban Kākābeak Project, came from the country’s largest plantation of wild kākābeak. This has been established in three protected enclosures by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust on its property in the Maungataniwha Native Forest in inland Hawke’s Bay.


Most of the 140 plants there survived the damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle. They are grown from seed collected from bluffy strongholds near the property, and tended by Mr Powrie, his wife Anita and a team of volunteers. Seed and cuttings from these plants were, in turn, used by Marie Taylor to establish the population at Plant Hawke’s Bay.

“That’s how we can trace back the genetics of the 1,000-plus plants distributed to safe places across Hawke’s Bay before the floods,” Mr Powrie said.


“What we have now, thank goodness, are hundreds of little Noah’s Arks for kakabeak spread right across Hawke’s Bay.”

Some of the kākābeak propagated at by both Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust and Plant Hawke’s Bay are planted back into parts of the Maungataniwha Native Forest where pest control is undertaken. But these young plants are still subject to predation so The Urban Kākābeak Project exists to provide many more protected sites, to educate the public and build a community around the plant.


‘Safe sites’ developed by the project include marae around the region; home gardens; Kimi Ora, Iona and Frimley schools in Hastings; a Meridian Energy site in Taupo and a Moteo farm owned by Matt Wilson. By delightful coincidence, illustrating the intertwined nature of the Hawke’s Bay conservation community, Mr Wilson’s late father, helicopter pilot Lin, helped to eliminate wilding pines on a former pine plantation that the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust is reconverting into native forest.


Other key contributors to The Urban Kakabeak Project include Troy Duncan of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, Theresa Thornton of Ngāti Pāhauwera and Alan Lee of the Department of Conservation (DOC). Their work is made possible by funding from the Pan Pac Environmental Trust, Biodiversity Hawkes Bay, DOC and Ngāti Pāhauwera Development Trust.


Ultimately the offspring from plants now being raised safely by the project team will be used to restock the nursery at Plant Hawke’s Bay and planted back in the wild, in areas that have been cleared of pests and predators.


How you can help Mr Powrie called for hunters, anglers, trampers and rafters to keep their eyes out while in the bush this spring for individual kākābeak plants growing in the wild. Any sightings of the flamboyant plant, which is typically found clinging to cliffs and inaccessible bluff systems, should be reported to the nearest DOC office.


New finds are significant because they widen the pool of wild-grown genetics that can be used in propagation efforts.

“We’re asking anyone who sees a plant – and they’re pretty unmistakable – to make a note of the location, preferably using a GPS for the most accurate co-ordinates, and to let us have this information as soon as they get back to civilisation,” Mr Powrie said.


“This is the time of the year when the plants are heavy with spectacular bunches of curved crimson flowers, so it’s an ideal time to spot them.”



People are asked to keep their eyes out while in the bush this spring for individual kākābeak plants growing in the wild. Any sightings of the flamboyant plant (left) should be reported to the nearest DOC office.

The Urban Kākābeak Project is made possible by funding from the Pan Pac Environmental Trust. Here the Trust’s Reece O'Leary discusses kākābeak propagation with Marie Taylor of Plant Hawke’s Bay.


Much of the wild seed used to propagate the more than 1,000 young plants distributed across the region by The Urban Kākābeak Project came from protected enclosures built by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust. Here Chairman Simon Hall reviews one of the wild kākābeak planted there.


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