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  • Helen English Artist

First hand experience

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

I was busy researching native wildlife - something I do when I have a spare moment! – when I noticed Mokoia Island coming up in my internet search. It was a moment of realisation that, of course, I have a native wildlife sanctuary on my doorstep.


Mokoia Island sits in the middle of Lake Rotorua. It is about 1km across and the same deep. The front section is flat grassland, peppered with mostly native flora. The back area is more forested and rocky.

The island was jointly looked after by DoC (Department of Conservation) and the Mokoia Island Trust, who are an organisation of the Maori iwi who are the guardians of this richly historical piece of land, until a few years ago. Now the Trust looks after the island, following the protocols of DoC and often assisted by previous employees of the same who still want to add their experience to the continued protection of the land.


In years gone by, local iwi inhabited the island, farming kumara (sweet potato) in the rich volcanic soils. There were about ten marae and each had their own area of the whenua (land). The island is also at the centre of the love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai – Hinemoa’s pool (Waikimihia), at the front of the island, is where she warmed herself after swimming across to the island to see Tutankai. It became a Wildlife Refuge in 1953 although there have been a lot of stages to the relatively high percentage of native wildlife that now exists there.


These days, tourists can visit the island on organised tours, when Covid alert levels allow. This is currently paused however there is a group of volunteers who go across twice a week, weather depending, and check the pest control traps which are numerous in their effort to keep the feathered and reptilian residents safe from unwanted visitors. I enquired about taking part in one of these voluntary missions and was warmly welcomed. Just the sort of adventure that I love!

We left the lake front in a nine-person jetboat at 9am sharp on Thursday, and arrived on Mokoia at just after ten past. After opening up the hut, which is just by the ramp, to gather paperwork, various bait, and clips and implements to open and secure the traps we set off in groups to monitor and service the traps. I was grouped with Jason, who runs the trips, and Carol, who is a retired DoC employee. They were both mines of information as we trekked around our section. As a beginner, who had no idea about location and drills, I had the task of carrying the eggs which serve as possum and rat bait. Mice are enticed using the old trick of peanut butter in smaller traps. I would like to report that I managed to carry the tray for the full three hours that we spent doing the work without slipping over or otherwise dropping the eggs – quite a feat for someone who spends half her life doing just that in muddy or icy terrain!


Gladly, the only pests which I encountered were mice, who have unfortunately been resident on the island for the past three years. They are a food of weka, a flightless native bird on the island, but would in turn reduce the population of skink, a small native lizard who have been detected on Mokoia. Rats and stoats have even greater potential to impact native wildlife though. Rats apparently are prone to swimming across from the mainland in Autumn and we didn’t find any, which is really good. Stoats have never yet been found there, as far as my very knowledgeable group told me. Long may that last.

As we walked around, Carol explained to me that the sheets, which were filled in with details about what was found in each type of trap and the state of the bait in bait stations, are used to inform the trust about the location and number of pests caught and this then helps build a picture of how the conservation and preservation of the native, and often endangered, species is going. The wildlife is abundant. I saw a variety of native birdlife, such as pukeko, saddlebacks, black swans and robins as well as flora, such as rangiora, kohuhu and puahau. There is a lot more as well.

When we got back to base, Jason took me the short distance to see Hinemoa’s Pool and retold the story, pointing out the locations of Hinemoa Point on the mainland and where Tutanekai would have sat and played his flute. The story now came to life for me. He also told me of the Te Arawa-Nga Puhi battle from the placement of a rock which has large round grooves from musket fire in it. I realised that kinesthetic learning, which had happened in many ways to me that day, was definitely fulfilling and effective. It also gave me the chance to feel at one with the wildlife that I love painting.


I was so grateful for the experience, and the kindness of the people who I met. They welcome anyone who wants to take part in these missions if they have room on the boat and, in turn, you really do get an awful lot out of it. Mokoia Island, I will be back. Very soon!

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