Fresh hopes for threatened carvings

A Moriori tree carving within a relatively healthy stand of kopi trees at Taia Bush Historic Reserve on Rekohu (Chatham Islands). Photo by Ian Barber.
A Moriori tree carving within a relatively healthy stand of kopi trees at Taia Bush Historic Reserve on Rekohu (Chatham Islands). Photo by Ian Barber.
It is hoped recent funding grants will help stave off the demise of the Chatham Islands' historic tree carvings.

For the past four or five years, researchers and the community have been warning the uniquely New Zealand dendroglyphs were about to be lost to high winds and grazing animals which caused the trees to rot and the carved bark to fall away.

While it was thought there were more than a thousand of the carvings in kopi trees (karaka) in the mid-20th century, a little over 100 survive today.

University of Otago archaeologist Associate Prof Ian Barber has been working with the Hokotehi Moriori Trust to record the carvings and advise on conservation, management and investigation options.

Dr Barber said even though the carved kopi stands were fenced, wind exposure continued to affect them.

It had been thought the carvings would die out naturally but researchers had recently found their demise could be countered, he said.

A stand of kopi sheltered by pine trees, the Taia Bush Historic Reserve, showed this.

"There are clear indications that kopi canopy loss and the rate of demise of carved trees on Rekohu (the largest island of the Chathams) can be directly related to wind exposure or protection from."

This meant it might be possible to improve the health of some trees with appropriate management and treatment.

"It is hoped these treatments can be applied in time so as to improve the health of some of the few carved tree trunks and standard that are left, providing for their survival for at least several more decades."

Recently, the Lottery Grants Board environment and heritage fund had granted about $150,000 to the trust for preventive measures in areas where the trees were in good condition, trust general manager Maui Solomon said.

The Pacific Conservation and Development Trust had also given $20,000.

An interim conservation laboratory at Kopinga marae would be constructed for any trees that needed to be removed. Last year, eight dead trees were taken to Te Papa so the carvings could be conserved.

The Department of Conservation had also allocated "significant" funds towards the Hapupu national historic reserve, where fewer than 40 trees with recognisable carvings remained standing, and only two in reasonable health.

Doc Chatham Islands area manager Jim Clarkson said work in progress included soil testing to see if there was a connection between soil fertility and the decline of the trees, and construction of platforms near trees to stop people touching trees or compressing soil at their roots.

The track to the tree carvings had been realigned to rest some of the trees which had been viewed for many years.

It was also planned to bring an arborist to the island to trial removing deadwood or damage from the trees, he said.

"There are a few other things in the pipeline too."

rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz