Ruatoria's Graeme Atkins is a keen bushman, he knows his way around the Raukumara Ranges and is constantly working to protect and nurture the flora of the Gisborne region.
The East Coast DOC ranger says the spread of pests and in particular deer has seen underlying vegetation stripped, which has severe implications for a delicately balanced ecosystem.
It’s a love affair between Atkins and the land that comes from his whakapapa, he says.
“On my Mum and Dad’s side, there’s a common thread there, if I go back three great grandfathers, they were both whalers…they were products of their time, in their day they probably thought the resource was boundless, no end, but we know different.
“Another one of my ancestors on my Mum’s side, he was a tohunga, and his speciality was the medicinal sides of the plants so I like to credit him with my interest in plants and such.”
His passion for rongoā Māori stems from his early years with one of his grandmothers, who would teach him about plants and their uses. As he got older, he would go out and collect plants for her.
Over the past 25 years, he’s worked with people from a range of disciplines and has learnt from them, while passing on his traditional knowledge.
Going away from home, first to boarding school and then on his OE, Atkins says was crucial in his journey.
“The majority of the males I grew up with, to put it nicely, went off the rails, and I think that I could have easily fallen into that rut. Being sent away, to boarding school especially, you get out of your comfort zone and there’s a bigger, wider world. I was lucky enough to have, from my European ancestors likely, the roaming gene and spent some time overseas, got to see how others live…and how lucky we are here.”
Atkins made a deal with one of the men on the East Coast who shares a similar whakapapa to his papa; he would get given a shopping list of roots and bark and leaves, and in return would be taught about the medicinal properties of plants.
“He was just as happy to see me as I was to see him, because he was in his late 80s then.”
A lot of the work Atkins does is remote and isolated.
“Nobody really sees it, especially in the Raukumara Ranges because there’s no roads in there and nobody really gets to see what’s happening. I’ve had 25 years service this year and during that time period we’ve pretty much monitored things vanishing and why we monitor, we can prove that something's having and affect, we can apply for funding to try and fix the affect, it’s been really depressing actually, watching things vanishing.”
Last year Atkins took a group of 16 Ngāti Porou locals through to see things for themselves.
“We did an over nighter, we all slept in there, and they were all waiting for the dawn chorus and there was no dawn chorus, for the two days we were in there, we never saw no kererū, we saw no tui, no bellbirds and they’re sort of stable in the coastal country out here but they’re no longer out here.”
There hasn’t been a dawn chorus for more than five years, he says.
Having read a few books about ecology, Atkins says you see things that wouldn’t even register with the average person. “Basically, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
The Kaka Beak, for example, is down to only 100 plants because they’re being eaten by things like deer and plant pests the Passion Vine Hopper and the Green Vegetable Bug. “They’re sap suckers and what that means is that get any number of them on plants and they’ll do enough damage by sucking the sap out of them.”
The changes happening; high pest numbers, weeds spreading into new areas, are probably going to became permanent, he says.
“It just means future generations are not going to have the luxury of things that we probably take for granted now, they’re not going to be able to experience them.”