Hamiora Gibson (Sam the Trap Man), is a keen outdoors man, who has recently been selected as a semi-finalist for the Kiwi Bank New Zealander of the year awards. He runs the Eastern Whio Link conservation project – a 25,000ha hunter led project, run in partnership with Matawai Marae. This important project has recently been selected as a finalist in the NZ Biodiversity Awards as well as receiving Jobs for Nature funding. It incorporates Western Science and Matauranga Māori approaches to inform the management decisions. He is passionate about reconnecting people with the land and unpacking ecosystem services in a way that is easily digestible for people.
Our association started with Hamiora through a pair of Mercury Leggings! Early in 2021 he wrote to us:
“I have been wearing your Mercury leggings since 2013 and have only needed two pairs in that time period. They are amazing and the most comfortable and hard wearing thermals I have found and I’m in them every day.” – Sam the Trap Man
He needed a new pair which we sent to him along with a Power Dry Long Sleeve top which is now part of his ‘essential wear.
The Eastern Whio Link kaupapa was started by a small group of hunters who had watched our Whio (blue duck) slowly disappearing from the streams in the area we hunt. It started off as a hunter led conservation project, trapping stoats and fledging Whio chicks. But it quickly grew to be something bigger. We now have 7 educational organisations using the project as their classrooms, over 100 volunteers, and really strong relationships with Tangata Whenua. We are looking after many more species than just Whio; Kiwi, bats, Raukumara Tusked Weta, Hochstetters Frog and many smaller bird species are all part of the programme now. We have been selected as finalists for the NZ Biodiversity awards amongst other recognitions and are also starting to attract international media attention.
But why do we do what we do and what motivated us to get started? Well I guess we just saw an opening, an opportunity to help and create a conservation project that was reflective of who we are as hunters and what we do as an East Coast community. On the East Coast we hunt and fish mostly to feed our whanau, that’s what it’s all about, gathering kai, feeding the whānau and enjoying every adventure along the way. We started the project just after the Tahr debate had kicked off and really felt that we couldn’t identify with the type of hunter that was being portrayed in the media at that time. We were fully aware of the damage deer and other species are doing to our Ngahere. In fact, they were directly outcompeting us for our traditional vegetables such as Kareao and Pikopiko tips.
We saw ourselves as hunters that were part of the ecosystem, part of a solution rather than the problem and we actively targeted hinds in an effort to lower deer numbers to reduce the impact of these introduced animals to native ecosystems. We saw ourselves as understanding ecosystems better than most people in NZ as many of our volunteers have science and biodiversity backgrounds. However, we also knew that by sitting on the sidelines we weren’t helping anyone. So we decided to put our money where our mouths were and adopt the upper Waioeka Catchment as an area of land that we would start to look after. The Upper Waioeka Catchment is 25,000ha of predominantly public conservation land, with a world renowned trout fishing river running through it. There are red, deer fallow and wild pigs as well as a smattering of really incredible remnant populations of natives.
We wanted to create a project that reflected who we were and what our culture was. We hoped that creating a positive hunter led initiative would support the public to see hunters in a new light. We set about using our bush knowledge and matauranga Maori mixed in with a good dash of western science to identify key areas of interest. We used trout abundance and condition to identify good Whio habitat. It’s no secret that good trout country is good Whio country as they both need an abundance of insect larvae to eat. The fishermen in our community were more than happy to share their favourite stretches of river with us if it meant once again being able to see Whio bouncing down the rapids beside them as they fished.
We started to monitor deer impact by using traditional kai species such as Kareao and Pikopiko. These are species that we eat in the bush, in place of vegetables, because carrying in fresh vegetables isn’t practical. Possum impacts were measured using Tawa fruiting, while rat impacts were measured by the chew marks left on various fruit kernels.
In short, we created a project that didn’t subscribe to common conservation theory or other widely accepted methodologies. It came from us, our people and our ecosystems. In the first year, every pair of Whio we were supporting successfully fledged chicks who went on to establish their own territories within the project. We had now successfully tripled the known Whio population in these rivers.
In the second year, COVID struck and more and more people, stuck at home, started to crave the bush and our wild places. They found their escape from reality in the hills and rivers of the Waioeka and, in return, they chose to give back by volunteering for the Eastern Whio Link.
I guess it’s this that drives us. We see the Eastern Whio Link, not as a conservation project, but as a vehicle to help people engage with their natural environments and a place to build ecosystem literacy through spending time understanding seasons and interactions between species. While there are some huge biodiversity gains that come from the project, the most impactful work is facilitating peoples reconnection to the whenua and to themselves. We host people from all walks of life, stressed CEO’s from Auckland, single mothers working three jobs, and kids where the classroom just simply isn’t the best classroom for them. The Eastern Whio Link lights a little fire in people to spend time in nature and regain balance in themselves.
Eastern Whio Link, is about supporting the ecosystems that support us, about doing some trapping and hoping that our efforts are enough so that we can continue to hunt, fish and forage in our wild places for generations to come.