Shared sense of sanctuary

Teams of volunteers gather at base to get their instructions for the day. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
Teams of volunteers gather at base to get their instructions for the day. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
June is the month New Zealand acknowledges its volunteer workforce. Orokonui depends on a large team of them, doing many kinds of work. Alyth Grant views the scene.

It's not all just about weeding!

It is 9.30am on a fine day and a group of volunteers are assembled outside conservation manager Elton's office, armed with tools, and ready to go. After a summer of vigorous growth it is getting hard for the rangers and volunteers who check trakka tunnels and traps every couple of months to push their way through the vegetation along the pest monitoring tracks - many kilometres of them. This morning's team have answered the call to go out to trim it back.

Some are regulars who know the ropes, but today there are some students as well, with their welcome fresh energies. They will be away all day, taking their lunch with them and working as a team - new people learning on the job. Kate, who joined the volunteers after having visited as part of her university course, tells me: "What I really enjoy is having time outdoors. I find it quite relaxing to be in the forest focusing on one job, not thinking about my studies for that little while.'' Having enjoyed the experience, she will be back, when time allows.

They depart, leaving behind others who have their regular jobs to do, replenishing the sugar water and kaka food, feeding the takahe and talking to visitors, bringing in the leftover food put out last night for the juvenile kiwi, and weighing out and medicating tonight's ration. Then there's some re-growth gorse to be dealt to and some traps outside the fence to be checked as well. And this evening, someone will come to put out the night's kiwi food in the individual territories that the present five young Haast tokoeka inhabit.

After a walk through the bush, the track detail is ready to start. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
After a walk through the bush, the track detail is ready to start. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
A couple of days ago, Barbara left a note recounting a "crazy encounter'' she had with kiwi Kaha while doing that job: "He/she was rocketing round near the feeding box - even shot between my legs twice, then off into the bush and back again! Then when I'd put the food in the feed box s/he rushed in to eat, backside poking out. Amazing speed and such a treat!'' Her note finished - understandably - with a smiley!

Sitting chatting over lunch in the new volunteer shed I ask Fred, who comes out regularly on a Wednesday, what he has been involved with over the years. There has been plenty variety. He has helped with infrastructure: building the enclosure for the Otago skinks, and another for green skinks; helping with the reconstruction of culverts, a job that lasted a couple of years; pest monitoring of trakka tunnels and traps inside and outside the fence.

He has done his share of track maintenance too, and is always willing to step in to do the bird feeding and kiwi care if someone else can't be there. Not to mention today's gorse! He likes turning his hand to whatever the day requires, bringing, he says, no special skills (as if reliability weren't one!), working in support of ranger Geoff, who has plenty.

But he too has an enjoyable memory of a special day. It was the day he went up to the Maniototo with the professionals to collect some rare green skinks for translocation to the ecosanctuary. Their last haven in the wild is now endangered. That involved raising the large boulders under which they hide, capturing them and transferring them to specially designed boxes for transportation. It was a great "boys' day out'', and they quietly celebrated their precious cargo with a lunch-stop at the historic Wedderburn pub on the return journey.

Woodchips will help keep the weeds down on a freshly weeded rockery. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
Woodchips will help keep the weeds down on a freshly weeded rockery. PHOTO: ALYTH GRANT
Other volunteers find good use for the skills from their professional life. Orokonui's business board (OEL) is made up of professionals with business and legal skills who give their time to ensure the project stays on the straight and narrow financially. Their experience includes accounting, finance, fundraising, public relations, marketing, and upskilling staff in these areas.

In their case, too, when asked about their motivation, they speak of the opportunity to "give back'' to the environment that has given them so much pleasure over the years, but also the appreciation of and the enjoyment of working with dedicated and enthusiastic people on a well-run and visionary project.

Brendan, who had already volunteered as a guide for five years, then joined the OEL and realised there was a lot more he could help with: "Being a board member has opened up new volunteering opportunities, such as helping to upskill Orokonui staff in the areas of public relations and digital marketing.''

Several others are "hands-on'' in the field as well, on the monitoring tracks, bird feeding, lizard counting, or helping as a marshal for the Orokonui Challenge. And all have enjoyed the personal learning experience that is common to all volunteers at the ecosanctuary.

Mary-Jane, Lynn and Diane get into some rough work. PHOTO: BRAM EVANS
Mary-Jane, Lynn and Diane get into some rough work. PHOTO: BRAM EVANS
Another important group volunteering their time are those whose expertise is directly linked to conservation of rare animals and plants. Drawing on their research and/or practical involvement in conservation, the Orokonui Knowledge Group meets several times a year to make decisions on research that needs to be done, future translocations and the like.

And in the background there's Judy, who for years now has been looking after the weekly banking, membership and other very necessary office work that takes some of the load from the general manager.

Orokonui's volunteers and the jobs they do are many and varied, but all are united in their vision for the future. As our long-standing treasurer Ross Smith put it: "Orokonui is important to me because it has the long-term potential to involve the greater Dunedin community in understanding and participating in basic 'backyard' conservation.''

Alyth Grant is just one of many enthusiastic Orokonui volunteers.


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