The Trojan manu: bringing kiwi back

Where alumnus Paul Ward grew up in Johnsonville, the extent of biodiversity in his backyard was blackbirds, sparrows, and possums. Now, the bird fanatic and his team at The Capital Kiwi Project have succeeded in releasing their first kiwi back into Wellington’s backyard.

man at microphone with girl beside him holding a wooden kiwi
Paul speaking at Mākara School as the kiwi arrive (photo credit: Sara Tansy)
“I’ve been a bird nerd since I was a kid. I used to go along with dad when he was duck shooting, and spot kārearea (falcons). Holidays used to see me drag my family up at the crack of dawn to see kōkako or penguins,” says Paul.

“When I returned from overseas in 2008, I went running up Aro Valley, where I was surprised to see kākā in a gum tree.” Soon after, Paul co-founded Ngā Kaimanaaki o te Waimapihi (formerly the Polhill Protectors)—trapping pests, planting natives, and building a community around looking after native wildlife on the hillsides feeding the Waimapihi stream. “Inspired by the kākā’s successful return to our city, five or six years ago my team and I started working towards what we have now—the return of kiwi in the wild in Wellington.”

“The vision for Wellington is ultimately to shift us from being passively proud of tūī in our backyard and kererū on our powerlines—to become true guardians of these animals that are so much a part of our identity.”

Paul studied a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History, and English, Theatre and Film at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, graduating with first class Honours in 1998, then heading to Oxford University to complete a Master’s in English.

“This was in the period at Victoria University where there was a really amazing group of people coming through the Theatre and Film programmes—the Taika, Jermaine, Bret era—and with cheap rent in town, and plenty of spaces to perform, there was a sense of potential. Wellington was a place where you could try stuff out.

“Uni was also the place I made lifelong friendships. Young people growing up together, flatting, figuring out how to be an ‘adult’—the communities we found were as formative as the lectures, and many of us are still close friends,” says Paul.

He recalls History professors Charlotte McDonald and Miles Fairburn in particular from his Honours year, and credits them for instilling a rigour in his thinking and reasoning.

“They taught us to form an argument and make a case for something based on evidence. My career has spun off in various directions—from filmmaking to conservation—but that essay-shaping discipline was really formative.”

Paul’s first job after Oxford was in Sydney, before a stint on a Discovery Channel show in the USA, and when he returned to Aotearoa he used his history training and storytelling skills to work on documentaries Here to Stay and Undercover, while also creating award-winning short films The Graffiti of Mr Tupaia (2008), Choice Night (2010), and Cold Snap (2013). He also invented the Wild Eyes app and web series for kids, and was founding editor of NZ on Screen—Iwi Whitiāhua.

“When establishing Ngā Kaimanaaki o te Waimapihi, we realised that we needed a mindset shift: we needed to reach beyond the ‘greenie converts’, to make looking after nature accessible, whether you're a mountain biker, a granny, or ... a mountain biking granny. As a result of collective efforts across town, Wellington is now one of only a handful of cities worldwide that has increased its indigenous biodiversity,” says Paul.

He credits storytelling with helping connect locals with, and grow the guardianship of, that space—and helping to start The Capital Kiwi Project. “Ten years ago most people wouldn’t have recognised a kākā [parrot], now it’s becoming a western suburbs icon.”

When starting work on Capital Kiwi, the first thing they needed was iwi and landowners, along with local community, on board. “It’s like a tripod—we needed all three on board from the start. Without one of those legs, the tripod falls over.”

They then set up over 4500 traps over three years, targeting stoats—the main threat to kiwi chicks—to help ensure the safety of reintroduced kiwi. It is the largest community-owned stoat trap network in the country, covering an area bigger than Abel Tasman National Park.

There are over 100 landowners involved in the project, across nearly 24,000 hectares of private and public land—the hills south and west of Wellington, from Red Rocks to north of Porirua.

“We are at the end of the beginning. We’ve got the first 13 birds on the ground on Terawhiti Station behind Mākara, and we will continue to deliver kiwi at the rate of 40–50 birds a year over the next five to six years.

“I think the reason we were successful in getting all these people behind what is quite a radical conservation opportunity is that it is kiwi we are talking about. Everybody identifies with them emotionally—It's the animal that we are named after.

“The kiwi is a bit of a Trojan manu, because we know if we create the necessary relationships to bring kiwi back, other animals will also be able to return and share the hills.”

The ultimate goal, says Paul, is to have Wellingtonians from Karori to Island Bay, to Johnsonville, going to sleep at night hearing kiwi. “To paraphrase David Attenborough, 'People will only care for things that they have aroha for, and they will only have that aroha for things they have experienced.' We want to see every Wellingtonian experience kiwi in their backyard, to get chills from its distinctive call, and to understand what’s enabled it.”