Today (September 11), Auckland Zoo is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of our Aotearoa New Zealand Track, Te Wao Nui, and the life-giving roles it plays for wildlife and people, and we invite you to join us!

In this story, we chat to some Zoo staff and volunteers about Te Wao Nui and what makes this unique experience of Aotearoa so special.

Te Wao Nui is home to more than 50 endemic animal species within six iconic New Zealand ecological habitats over a fifth of our Zoo, and is all about celebrating, connecting with, and conserving Aotearoa’s extraordinary and unique wildlife.

There are more species being bred and expertly cared for off-display. Among them, the planet’s only population of cobble skinks, and the world’s first Zoo-bred populations of Archey’s frogs and black mudfish; all tiny, biologically fascinating, and highly threatened.

In ‘Te Wao Nui a Tāne’ (The Forest Habitat), the heart of Te Wao Nui, stands Tāne Nui a Rangi, a stunning three-metre-high carving, its creation led by sculptor, designer, and master carver, Lyonel Grant (Te Arawa).

Tāne, the son who forced his parents Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūanuku (Earth mother) asunder to allow light to fall upon the earth, represents a life-giver.

For our Zoo staff and volunteers, our visitors, communities, and all of our conservation partners and supporters, Te Wao Nui is that life-giver - providing the heart and hub to connect in nature together, grow conservation efforts in Aotearoa, and further the Zoo’s mission to ‘bring people together to build a future for wildlife’.

12 species and 7,000+ animals bred for wildlife recovery programmes!

Since opening Te Wao Nui in 2011 with key partners, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, Zoo visitation has topped 6.7 million.

Our specialist Animal Care & Conservation staff have bred 12 threatened endemic species - 7,187 individual animals, as part of essential wildlife recovery programmes!

Nine of these species (pāteke, whio, kiwi, kākāriki karaka, tara iti/fairy tern, brown kiwi, wētāpunga, grand skinks, Otago skinks, and tuatara) - 6,671 individual animals - have been released to safe areas in the wild around the motu.

Three more species, cobble skinks, Kapitia (Chesterfield) skinks and black mudfish (426 animals), are waiting in the wings for future releases once the right safe havens are secured.

Zoo director, Kevin Buley, says the opening of Te Wao Nui – an amazing milestone for the Zoo, represented a genuine paradigm shift in the role and purpose of Auckland Zoo as a wildlife conservation organisation”.

A key shift has been in the role staff have been playing, using their specialist skills honed at the Zoo, to help wildlife in the wild across the Tāmaki Makaurau region, and all over Aotearoa.

Wild Work and DOC partnership

Over the past decade, this ‘Wild Work’ has seen the Zoo contribute more than 40,000 hours over the past ten years, worth close to $2M, working on dozens of field projects for some of our most endangered species.

The Zoo is also contracted by DOC and other conservation partners, to carry out other highly specialised work, such as that of our veterinary team who provide critical hospital and/or in-the-wild care to sick/injured wild kākāpō, takahē, sea turtles and other threatened taonga.

“Our growth in this space has been made possible through the unique partnership we now have with DOC, where our respective specialist skill sets are being combined to provide an overall wildlife conservation impact, greater than the sum of its parts,” says Kevin.

“For me, it was former director Jonathan Wilcken’s vision and seeing the potential that Auckland Zoo could play much more of a role in wildlife conservation in the wild that drew me here from the UK to New Zealand 11 years ago. 

“In Te Wao Nui, we have 20% of our zoo dedicated to native species, and for good reason. I love that when you’re standing in it, it’s very easy to forget you’re even in the city of Auckland. Over the last 10 years the area has evolved into a true urban oasis, and is innovative, and very much a visual representation of our commitment to building a future for wildlife in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Exceptional staff

“Te Wao Nui is the hub and the heart of our strategic and our emotional commitment to wildlife conservation in New Zealand and provides our visitors and our wider communities with a glimpse of the holistic approach we’re now taking. Key to the success of this approach has been our exceptionally skilled and enthusiastic staff who continue to willingly throw themselves into what is often extremely challenging, conservation fieldwork.

It is this commitment that makes me so very proud of them and of what we do as an organisation, and it has built Auckland Zoo’s international reputation as a modern wildlife conservation zoo.

Kevin’s love of Te Wao Nui

It’s difficult to get a straight answer from Kevin about his favourite part of Te Wao Nui (it really is the whole, joined-up experience). However, if pushed, he’ll tell you it’s Ngā Repo (The Wetlands) with the long-finned eels where underwater viewing and imaginative design enables visitors to connect with these enigmatic fish “eye-to-eye and nose-to nose.

“It’s a perspective you would never get of them in the wild, and one that helps give you a whole new appreciation for the species,” says Kevin

It is these different perspectives of New Zealand wildlife – whether it is the eels, the kiwi, takahē, or tuatara, that make the Te Wao Nui experience so very special for Kevin.

“So many of our endemic species are now frighteningly rare in the wild, drastically restricted in their range and their overall numbers. Those that do remain are often, by their very nature, frustratingly elusive and secretive. It therefore makes it nigh on impossible for us to get a proper appreciation for just how magical they are.

Te Wao Nui provides a unique window into their world, and an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people each year to connect with some of our amazing wildlife taonga in this very special zoo setting”. 

Te Wao Nui second home for bird keeper Natalie

For senior bird keeper Natalie Clark, who for the past 12 years has had the joy and privilege of seeing kiwi chicks and other precious endemic bird species hatch, then care for them up to their release to the wild, Te Wao Nui is very much her second home.

“I can’t believe it’s 10 years!  But I’m really glad I’m still here and that I’ve been able to be part of us really stepping up as a Zoo to help conserve wildlife in the wild,” says Natalie.

“Being part of a team caring for our native species means we’re privileged to have fieldwork opportunities right on our backdoor step, and all the skills we’ve learnt here at the Zoo, we’re using out there in the wild,” says Natalie.

“My colleagues and I are involved in projects like Operation Nest Egg for kiwi, doing takahē health checks on Hauraki Gulf islands and other mainland sites, helping DOC’s Kākāpō Recovery Team hand-rear kākāpō chicks and carrying out transmitter changes on older kākāpō on these stunning and remote pristine islands like Whenua Hou (Codfish Island). Locally, we help with kōkako monitoring and annual census for Ark in the Park in the Waitākere Ranges.

“For me personally, the experience of working out in the wild with other colleagues and conservation partners has grown my skills so much. Being part of the work ourselves and physically making a difference to the conservation of these species, some of which are critically endangered, is a great feeling.

“When I’m then engaging with Zoo visitors about the threats to our birds, what the Zoo’s doing to help them, and what people themselves can do to help, I feel so much more qualified to share.

“For me, sharing those personal experiences adds authenticity to my story telling, and I think is so much more likely to inspire our visitors to take action for wildlife and want to get involved.”

Horticulturist Hugo: “Te Wao Nui has the X factor”

Auckland Zoo’s horticulture manager- extraordinaire of 26 years, Hugo Baynes, has played a massive role in the botanical greening and evolving immersive landscape design at the Zoo.

Te Wao Nui remains an unforgettable career highlight – one that saw Hugo and his amazing team still planting just minutes before its opening to visitors!

“There’s a deep feeling of satisfaction knowing what it could be, and then seeing it happen. It’s come into maturity, and it has actually worked. With its location and natural features, it’s got that X factor, it’s just perfect.”

Hugo says Te Wao Nui’s authenticity is one of the things he loves most about it.

“I just love the range of habitats, and the authenticity of each one in its place and location. All of the vegetation replicates native environments in the right combinations that you’d see in natural ecosystems within New Zealand.”   

Favourite areas are ‘Te Wao Nui a Tane’ (The Forest), and Nga Repo (The Wetlands) – for its beauty and serenity.

“I’ve always loved The Forest nestled into the hillside and its 18m high structure with the black mesh that almost disappears in amongst the podocarp forest, in such a way that you don’t even really feel or realise you’re in a massive aviary.”

As well as blending borrowed (established) landscapes, thousands of plants and more than 100 different species were planted in Te Wao Nui, which has resulted in a noticeable increase in local bird life, both native and introduced.

Hugo says one great example is just near the exit to Takutai (The Coast) where he and the team planted a lot of the kōwhai species from Stephen’s Island (Cook Strait).

“This kōwhai species is a first to come into flower and the birds have learnt it’s a great food source. It’s a prolific flowering specimen and drop-dead-gorgeous, and at times I’ve seen up to 20 tuis enjoying them. It’s plantings like this that have made a huge difference,” says Hugo.

Visitors a joy for volunteer Trish

Trish Hillyard, an Auckland Zoo volunteer for well over a decade, is passionate about Aotearoa’s wildlife and wild places. You’ll find her without fail, doing a steady circuit of Te Wao Nui every Tuesday and Sunday.

Trish’s great joy is engaging with Te Wao Nui’s visitors and sharing her knowledge.

“I particularly like being where the eels are or the geckos and skinks. They’re interesting, delightful, and easy to see, and when you share odd or quirky facts, like our native skinks not laying eggs, that can lead to bigger conversations with people.

“Sometimes I’ll see visitors that I’ve chatted to later on in another area, and they’ll come up and say, ‘oh I’ve just got one more question’. It’s just so cool, and it makes you feel really good,” says Trish.

A favourite area of Te Wao Nui for Trish, also a long-time volunteer guide on Tiritiri Matangi, is The Forest, which reminds her of the Waitākere Ranges.  

“I think what we have here at the Zoo is just so special. My personal wish is that people of all ages will love and care about New Zealand’s unique wildlife, and not only be interested in lions and tigers, which of course we all are as well! 

Over the last 10 years Te Wao Nui has evolved into a true urban oasis, and is innovative, and very much a visual representation of our commitment to building a future for wildlife in Aotearoa New Zealand”.

Kevin Buley, Director of Auckland Zoo

Slowing down and reconnecting

One of the Zoo’s younger and more recent volunteers, Chris Harris (originally from the UK) loves the opportunity Te Wao Nui offers to connect and learn about so many rare native species, like tīeke (a personal favourite), kākāriki karaka or takahē.

“It’s wonderful to see visitors getting excited by their experiences, like when they discover an animal they didn’t even know existed, spot a kiwi for the first time, or get to see a kea or kākā close up.

“There have been many occasions where I’ve heard visitors says something like ‘this is just the bird area’ when they first walk in. But then later, they walk away really excited about an encounter they’ve had with one our native species,” says Chris. “I love it when this happens!”

Whether working, visiting, or volunteering, Te Wao Nui is an invitation to us all to slow down, reconnect with nature and each other and be inspired to be kaitiaki of Aotearoa’s wildlife and wild places for the health and wellbeing of us all.