Skeletons of giants: NZ's sacred kauri in crisis

Gum runs down the trunk of an infected tree.
Gum runs down the trunk of an infected tree. Photo credit: File

Northland's forests are in crisis. The white skeletons of giant kauri are visible from the road - reminders of the spread of the kauri dieback, which kills almost every tree it infects.

It's widely accepted people and pigs are spreading the fungus-like disease, which enters the tree through its roots. Infected trees try to pump out the disease. Gum runs down their trunks as they slowly die.

The Waipoua Forest is home to some very sacred trees - Tāne Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere, possibly 3000 years old. The disease is getting closer to those trees. "Every time I'm out there, it seems to look worse", and the trees are in "crisis," Dr Amanda Black, a science lecturer at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga who consults on the biodiversity of the Waipoua forest, told Newshub. 

Pigs and people are to blame, she said.

The pigs rootle around the soil, damaging plants and spreading the disease. And the people - there are hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park and while there are disinfecting stations, they rely on people self-regulating and "a lot of them go off track".

The solution: kill the pigs and close the tracks - and rapidly.

"We've got a small window now for anything we do to be of any use."

"I think all those tracks should be closed until we get a chance to do something. That's up to mana whenua to make that call," Dr Black said.

She said that would include closing healthy forest to the public in order to protect it from incursion. The Government could impose a controlled area notice on swathes of kauri forest under the Biosecurity Act.

The threat to Auckland's Waitakere forest was deemed serious enough to have iwi impose a rāhui, which Auckland Council followed up with a ban on most walks in the ranges.

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said the Government is "seriously concerned" about the spread of kauri dieback in Northland.

"[We] will do our utmost to give the resources around DOC and any other agency and any other group beside us to help us out, because it is a crisis, and it should have been dealt with a lot time ago in a crisis way," Mr Peters said on Tuesday.

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters.
Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo credit: Mitchell Alexander/Newshub.

When asked whether the response in Northland would be ramped up, Mr Peters was in the affirmative.

"Of course it will be ramped up. It's deadly serious. Excuse the pun, but it's a serious issue, and we should have done a lot more a long time ago."

Skeletons of giants: NZ's sacred kauri in crisis
Photo credit: Getty

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the Government is "doing everything possible to make sure humans aren't spreading kauri dieback."

"Any threat to Tane Mahuta and the other rakau rangatira is serious," she said on Wednesday.

"There's a Tāne Mahuta action plan being prepared and the need for more pig control may be part of that."

"Now with Budget 2018, [and] the increased funding for predator control and pest control, the funding resources are there if Te Roroa the local iwi and DOC decide that more control is needed."

The National Party spokesperson on Conservation Sarah Dowie said she's concerned about kauri dieback "all throughout the north."

"The issue for me is who dropped the ball with regards to this incursion," she said.