Graeme Atkins, lone ranger out east
Updated: Aug 28
Graeme Atkins has a penchant for drawing attention to that which gets overlooked or forgotten.
It might be a tiny, elusive, native plant on the brink of extinction, or it could be a huge, sprawling range of remote peaks and valleys.
If it’s on his patch and it’s threatened, Atkins will be its advocate.
It might be no surprise that a man born and bred on the East Cape has an affinity with people, places and things that go unnoticed.
Atkins is the Department of Conservation’s “lone ranger”.
A new environmental group is looking for volunteers to help look after a rare plant on Mt Pirongia: Dactylanthus Taylori.
From the fertile plains of Gisborne to the sand dunes of Ōpōtiki, and every white sand beach, nīkau palm and forested range between, this is Atkins’ domain. From whale strandings to search and rescue operations, to the protection of flora and fauna, he’s our man in the far-flung east.
Of all that his job involves, it’s the plants he loves most.
That much is clear from the way he talks, but mostly it’s from the way he makes a soft fist of his right hand and gently taps the left side of his chest, above his heart, as he speaks.
Atkins, 54, spent the first five years of his life in Ruatoria. The second-oldest of five kids, the young inquisitive Atkins was very close to his grandmother Anne, who taught him about the traditional medicinal plants that abounded.
“She was the go-to person for our hapū. She taught me about all the plants. Kawakawa, karamū, koromiko, and others. She passed away in ’77, but she’d done enough by then. She’d put the seed in me,” he says.
The Raukumara Conservation Park covers 115,000 hectares of steep forest and tussock covered rocky peaks.
“Just by interacting with her, and my mum, with plants around our house in Ruatoria ... I don’t know how to explain it, but I always knew I was going to work with plants.”
The family moved to Gisborne. Atkins attended boarding college in Hamilton and was on track to go to university. But a summer holiday up in Tokomaru Bay was too much fun and lasted longer than it should have, and he wound up working in forestry.
“That was the mid to late eighties. There was massive land use change, especially after Cyclone Bola. I spent years in mud, planting trees in slips. It was good money back then. You could earn $1000 a week.”
He saved enough to go on an OE in 1989. It was not your typical trip.
“I went on a package tour to New York with all these retired business owners from Gizzy. There was 20 of us. They were all elderly and Pākehā. I was a 21-year-old forestry worker. I saw the ad in the newspaper and one of the attractions was Phantom of the Opera on Broadway with Michael Crawford. I really wanted to see that.”
They went to the show, saw the US tennis Open and flew to Niagara Falls. On the way home the group stopped in Hawaii and Atkins decided to stay.
He lived on the North Shore of Oahu for 18 months, working at the Dole pineapple factory and pumping petrol between long days on the beach.
Mt Hikurangi in the Raukumara Range.
He came home in 1991, returned to Tokomaru Bay, where he met his future wife (“my anchor”) Makere, and they moved to Gisborne to start a family.
He carried on working in forestry, but knew he didn’t want to be doing it for his whole working life.
“I knew I had a half a brain and I knew it was being wasted. I came to DoC and began volunteering. I knew by then that I wanted to be in conservation.”
One thing led to another, he proved himself capable and committed, and before long he was appointed to a fulltime role in Te Araroa.
It was while there that he “met” the wood rose, or Dactylanthus, known to Māori as Pua o te Rēinga – “the flower of the underworld”.
It’s a very rare and unusual flowering indigenous parasitic plant that grows underground on the roots of native trees. Until its small, oddly beautiful flowers, pop to the surface, you won’t know it’s there.
It’s threatened in all sorts of ways, but its biggest foes are the possum, rats and pigs.
It was while working to protect the Dactylanthus that Atkins noticed possum droppings that appeared to have a purple-pink colour.
“I broke some open and had a closer look. I saw that the colour was from the scales of the Dactylanthus flowers. I wondered what it looked like in the possums’ stomachs. I whipped out some traps, caught some [possums], and cut them open. Inside, their stomachs were just solid pink and purple.”
This was a very significant discovery. Because the plant is so hard to see or find, Atkins’ discovery meant a simple test on possums would reveal if the plant existed in an area.
He went all over the North Island on a mission to find the plant, and trained a jack russell-fox terrier cross called Mōhiti to sniff it out.
They discovered it in several areas where it had been thought extinct.
“This is just one of heaps of threatened plants we don’t know much about,” Atkins says. “They don’t get the sort of attention the cute and fuzzies get, the birds like kiwi and kākāpō, but they should.”
Atkins looks after the coast from Gisborne to Opōtiki and everything in between.
Speaking of things that don’t get much attention, how about the Raukumara Conservation Park? Chances are you haven’t heard of it. It’s a huge 115,000-hectare chunk of steep forest and tussock-covered rocky peaks. It’s the same size as Tararua Forest Park, but due to its remoteness and lack of easy access is devoid of huts or established tracks, and is barely ventured into.
At least by humans, that is.
Deer, possum, rats, stoats, pigs and the other usual suspects have made this place home. What should be a pristine, untouched wilderness has been overrun. It’s desolate and devoid of birdsong.
“I’d love for people to see what has happened in there. We call it the forgotten area,” Atkins says.
“In my 25 years working in there I’ve seen the destruction. We go back to the same locations every three years to monitor and measure every plant within the same small areas.
“Twenty-five years ago it would take two of us 10 hours to cover one site. That’s how thick and luxuriant that understorey was. You had to hack your way in through it. You couldn’t see 5ft in front of you. Nowadays two of us can do three of these sites and be finished by three o’clock.”
Over all those years, Atkins has never missed an opportunity to draw attention to the plight of Raukumara.
Three years ago, at the urging of his daughter, he entered the world of social media as a means of getting more traction.
“I shared the images with the community on the East Coast. People were shocked. They had no idea. Then we started taking groups in. It’s all about relationships. The relationship between tangata whenua and that place was broken.
“So I picked 16 people from different towns up there, and we took them in. I had a few prerequisites. They needed to be fit and know a bit about the bush, they had to be identified as potential future leaders, and they had to have a big social media following. I wanted them to spread the word.”
The word did get out, and last year Atkins took Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage into the park.
“Man, she was cool. We could have flown her around and shown her stuff, but she wanted to go on the ground to see for herself. We spent more than five hours walking around with her. She was devastated by what she saw, and made a pledge to do something.”
Sage stuck by that pledge, and this year announced a $34 million investment in the iwi-led Te Raukūmara Pae Maunga project, a partnership between Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou and DoC to control pests in the park.
Oh, and she also acknowledged Atkins’ years of dedication by recently presenting him with the nation’s most prestigious conservation award, the Loder Cup.