It’s mid-afternoon on a beautifully clear Tuesday in March, and Ngatokoa Tikitau can’t wipe the smile off his face.

“Man, that was amazing, eh,” he exclaims to a mate. “It’s so special to be a part of this mahi.”

Hailing from South Taranaki (he proudly wears the name of his iwi, Ngāruahine, on his shirt), Ngatokoa is one of more than 40 rangatahi participating in a training event at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. As kiwi are prepared to be transferred from Maungatautari to safe places in the wild, trainees from gifting and receiving iwi are learning how to care for this taonga species so they can become fully-fledged kiwi handlers in the future.

Ngatokoa has just stepped out of a makeshift transfer centre, a spare classroom on the grounds of Pukeatua School at the base of Maungatautari which has generously been made available to Save the Kiwi and Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari for the duration of the 2024 kiwi transfers. Inside, he observed kiwi being microchipped and receiving health checks and medication, all the while gently holding a kiwi. Today, 15 kiwi will pass through the transfer centre in preparation for transfers to Wellington, Tongariro and Taranaki in the coming weeks. Over the eight-week transfer period, more than 200 kiwi will leave the maunga and boost local populations elsewhere in the Western region of the North Island.

“I’ve been a part of a couple of releases on Taranaki Mounga, but I’ve never worked with kiwi at scale like this,” says Ngatokoa. “Over time I’ve developed a connection with these taonga manu. I’d like to continue that on, but also for our tamariki mokopuna, our generations to come. They’re the next ones to step up to the mantle to take up this kaitiakitanga role. Because that’s what we are: we’re kaitiaki of these manu. This kaupapa is setting up a pathway for our tamariki mokopuna to come through and be a part of this mahi.”

Earlier today, Ngatokoa learned how to use telemetry gear and understand the data the equipment generates. Later this afternoon, he will attach his first transmitter to a kiwi under the watchful eye of a highly experienced kiwi handler.

The focus of this training event which is run by Save the Kiwi is to upskill mana whenua at place to care for kiwi that live in their rohe, help prepare sites for the return of kiwi in the future, and create jobs that can be sustained long into the future. Funded by Jobs for Nature, this kaupapa is less about kiwi and more about the people being trained. Since the programme started in 2020, nearly 100 people have been signed off for various skills, including 45 people in the last two months alone.

“The long-term vision of this programme is about creating a workforce that has the skills, the training, everything they need to do work with kiwi on their own whenua,” says Save the Kiwi CEO Michelle Impey.

“But while the training revolves around kiwi, it’s more about creating pride and purpose in people. With conservation jobs now available, we are seeing people at place be able to stay on their whenua because they know they have a means to earn a living. Others are returning to the whenua because there is now work available. The outcomes for people far outweigh the benefits for kiwi.”

This training programme was sparked by the influx of funding via Jobs for Nature coupled with hundreds of kiwi being transferred from Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari every year from 2023, as part of the Kōhanga Kiwi kaupapa which Save the Kiwi runs in partnership with Ngāti Koroki Kahukura and Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

Kiwi training kaupapa creates long-term employment opportunities
Kiwi training kaupapa creates long-term employment opportunities

Ngatokoa participates in a kiwi health check and learns how to put a transmitter on a bird.

“What we saw coming was hundreds of kiwi per year that would have to be caught, health checked, and transferred to new locations in the wild, and the need to have a lot of people with the necessary skills to manage every step of the process,” says Michelle. “It’s incredibly encouraging knowing that the work we’re doing with this training kaupapa has upskilled more than 80 people who are on the journey to work with kiwi in the field.”

Previously, volunteers have been relied upon to carry out a significant amount of conservation work.

“Conservation relies heavily on volunteers, and this work couldn’t happen without them,” says Michelle. “But at the same time, not everyone has the luxury of being able to donate their time.  We need people who have skills to do this mahi, and we need to recognise that these people deserve to be paid a fair wage. Too often we expect people who do things ‘for the greater good’ to do them for free or less than fair pay, and that just isn’t sustainable. Volunteers will always be essential, but for some roles, in order to attract and retain skilled people we need to be able to pay them.”

The scheme is less about creating jobs, then, and more about long-term career opportunities.

“This is a vocation,” Michelle says. “People who do this have passion; it’s not just a job they do for money or to get them through the summer. We often say that Jobs for Nature should have been called Careers for Nature because it’s about creating a workforce and people who have the skills to do this long term. We’re all in this for the long haul.”

Maungatautari isn’t the only site involved in Save the Kiwi’s training kaupapa. Over the last 12 months, training days have also been held at Cape Sanctuary and Maungataniwha in the Hawke’s Bay, and Motutapu Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Training has covered an array of skills, including handling kiwi, affixing transmitters to them, and using telemetry gear and acoustic recording devices and interpreting the data associated with them.

Training isn’t limited to learning about kiwi either.

“The 12 projects that we fund through Jobs for Nature have put hundreds of people through some sort of training since the scheme started in 2020,” says Michelle. “This could be anything from first aid certificates to health and safety, to learning how to drive a four-wheel drive. Jobs for Nature hasn’t just given these people jobs; it’s given them lifelong skills.”

Kiwi training kaupapa creates long-term employment opportunities
Kiwi training kaupapa creates long-term employment opportunities

Save the Kiwi hosts training workshops at Cape Sanctuary.

Ngatokoa will now apply this taste-tester of kiwi conservation in action to his aspirations of becoming a kaitiaki of kiwi.

“Kiwi are so important to us as Māori. They’re a taonga species, they’re our tūpuna (ancestors), they’ve been here for years beyond our time. Tangata whenua, mana whenua – we know our whenua, we know our environment, and we have a connection to our whenua, our land, our awa. It’s very important for mana whenua to be involved in this mahi and establish this connection with the manu. It’s only right we look after them and tiaki them with a Māori focus.”