Sitting at my dining table, working from home, it’s hard to believe that only a few months ago my ‘work office’ was something so vastly different, something so unbelievable.

Cliff faces, bouldered shores, squawking kākā, undisturbed tracks, sneaky tuatara, fairytale mushrooms, dry riverbeds, wild kiwi, giant river stones, nesting kororā (little penguins), the list could go on.


Te Hauturu-o-Toi, also known as Little Barrier Island, is a 28km2 nature reserve, located 80km north of Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. It is jointly managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Ngāti Manuhiri Settlement Trust. And this island is probably the closest I have been to experiencing a pure New Zealand ecosystem – it’s a place conservationists dream of.

There are no permanent residents, only the rangers that live there with their families, everyone else who visits needs permission, and if you are successful in getting that you still need to go through the rigorous cleaning of all your gear and the biosecurity checks (before and after you have arrived there). After all, you wouldn’t want to be the reason for an unwanted pest incursion on such a pristine island!

Kiwi, tuatara, kōkako, takahikare, kākā, kororā, kākāriki, hihi, pekapeka, kākāpō and wētāpunga are just some of the species that roam this island. But Hauturu has been particularly important over the years for wētāpunga, acting as a refuge from habitat destruction and predation while the species populations elsewhere in New Zealand disappeared. Since then, a breeding and reintroduction project has been established to help protect the future of this species. This is where our mission came in.

Auckland Zoo has been involved in this breeding project since 2012, and this year we needed to collect new adult specimens from the wild. It’s important in breeding programmes to maintain high genetic diversity for population fitness - the ability to survive!


Our mission this year was clear to us early on …

Your mission should you choose to accept it: locate 6 male and 6 female wētāpunga, one of the largest and rarest insects on Earth, on the legendarily pristine island of Te Hauturu-o-Toi.’ – Doesn’t that sound like the most epic of quests!?

So, in late April the quest began, with a team of six conservationists.


Don McFarlane – Curator of Ectotherms, Auckland Zoo

Ben Goodwin – Senior ectotherm keeper, Wētāpunga species coordinator at Auckland Zoo

Devon Nicholls – Bird keeper, Auckland Zoo

Breeze Buchanan – Veterinarian Nurse, NZCCM, Auckland Zoo

Abbie Wakelin – Interpretation Coordinator, Auckland Zoo

BJ Black - Project Island Song


Day 1 –

Departed Auckland Zoo approx. 6:30am, biosecurity check was undertaken at Warkworth DOC office to check gear for pests/seeds and to pack everything into sealed plastic tubs. Visit to Ngāti Manuhiri Settlement Trust office for a cultural induction of Te Hauturu-o-Toi. Depart mainland from Sandspit. Arriving to Hauturu, the team ferried from the boat on a small dinghy, before another biosecurity gear check for stowaway pests in the islands quarantine room.

Shortly after arriving we noticed one of our chilly bins hadn’t made the trip over with us. After a quick call to one of the island ranger’s on a quick Auckland trip, we planned for her to bring our chilly bin back when she returned. This was a vital move as this bin held most of our protein, and with a week of wētā-hunting ahead, we needed to ensure we could keep up our energy.

After a Health & Safety briefing from Richard (Hauturu DOC ranger) – we planned out the week ahead.

We set out on our first night search at about 5pm. Wētāpunga, being nocturnal, come out at night. The first mature female specimen was collected, appropriately spotted by the team leader. It was found on some hanging, dead Astelia fronds. Searching for wētāpunga at night is rather disorientating, all of the plants start to look the same, and you don’t know if you have checked this tree yet or not, not to mention the odd noises, the number of giant spiders and the odd gecko that drops unexpectedly off a leaf onto your hand! 

End of day wētā count: 1F : 0M

Day 2 –

Team split: DM & BB to Pōhutukawa Flat, others to Awaroa. 

BB & DM: Travelled by boat to Pōhutukawa Flat (an area we haven’t previously explored as part of the wētāpunga project), day searches and night searches completed. One mature female specimen collected.

BG, AW, DN, BjB & DOC ranger Chippy Wood: 8-5pm - 3-hour trek to Awaroa Stream at the recommendation of Chippy who recently observed good numbers of wētāpunga living in pampas grass (an introduced pest plant that was getting cleared) up the dry streambed, we hoped to trek along the bouldered coast to get there but came to a pinch-point due to the high tide – we had to scale up a 4-5m cliff-face using a rope and trek through the forest to get to Awaroa Stream. After a 1-hour trek up the streambed we reached the pampas and found the ‘wētā nest’ with many juvenile and young wētāpunga sheltering amongst the invasive plants. Two 9th instar (almost mature; a wētāpunga goes through 10 instars or moults to reach maturity) specimens collected (1 male & 1 female). Searching continued while trekking slowly back down the stream, 1 mature male, 1 mature female, and another 9th instar male were collected.

End of day wētā count: 4F (1 almost mature) : 3M (2 almost mature)

Day 3 –

BB & DM: Day and night searches at Pōhutukawa flat. One mature male specimen collected. Return trek along the coast to Te Maraeroa Flat. Having collected a male and female from Pōhutukawa flat is particularly exciting as these individuals may have slightly different genetics, physical barriers and distance can act as a barrier for gene flow and start to create sub-populations. Different genes are important to include for survival prospects of babies produced!

BG, AW, DN & BjB: 8am-12pm – searching the Waipawa catchment, travelling up the dry stream bed, then cutting up onto the track. Many wētāpunga faecal pellets observed around the stream. One adult male specimen collected (spotted by me!). 1-4pm – searching around upper Shag track. One adult male specimen collected. 7-8pm – night search at the lower part of Shag track. A mature female and mature male specimen collected; the male specimen had an old eye injury.

At night time on Hauturu, ‘strange’ animals can be heard, things you don’t usually hear in Auckland. The closest noise coming from a couple of penguins nesting under the hut – DN woke a few times to their night-time squabbling. After the night search a few of us went kiwi-spotting. We spotted a ruru keeping an eye on us as we walked past, and as we rounded a corner, we caught a glimpse of a kiwi foraging for food before it ducked into the long grass!

End of day wētā count: 5F (1 almost mature) : 7M (2 almost mature, 1 damaged eye).

Day 4 –

Our protein-filled chilly bin finally arrived, just in the nick of time. A small opening in between some rough weather allowed the boat to make the trip across. If it hadn’t been now – it would have been never.

8am-12pm – Full team searching in and around the Tirikakawa Stream. Two mature female specimens collected, two sub-adults and one juvenile observed. Re-released 2 almost mature specimens (male and female) collected on day 2, since ideally, we are looking for sexually mature specimens that can all quickly contribute to the breeding programme upon return to the Zoo.

2-4pm – searching lower Thumb track, this habitat was less typical for finding wētāpunga, no wētāpunga found.

Pizzas for dinner – with a lot of protein!

DM, AW, BjB: 5.30-9pm – searching Valley track, no wētāpunga found.

BG, DN, BB: 5.30-9pm – searching Shag track, then searching Graveyard track. Only 2 juvenile wētāpunga seen.

End of day wētā count: 6F : 6M (1 almost mature, 1 damaged eye)

Day 5 –

9am-1pm – Full team searching around Valley track and along the Waikohare Stream. 4 mature females observed. 1 mature male collected. Returning from this search, we opted to try make our way up to the ridge instead of weaving back down the dry stream. This turned out to be an effort and a half! Climbing on all fours, was the safest and the only way to go up this ‘forest floor’. Using large, rooted trees as foot holds, we scrambled up a slope that was probably 60 degrees most of the way!

Upon returning back to the hut we re-released the remaining almost mature male wētāpunga, we now have a full fleet of mature specimens.

2.30pm-3pm –trek to Haowhenua Stream (one we previously haven’t collected any wētāpunga from, even on prior expeditions) to search for one male to replace the male with the old eye injury. While searching DM called everyone over – for what we thought might be the last one … but instead of a wētāpunga he had found a roosting short-tailed bat! While not the wētāpunga we had hoped for, we all agreed that it was an acceptable reason to fool us and get our hopes up, I mean, how often does one see a roosting short-tailed bat during the day!? Shortly after this BB spotted a wētāpunga just sitting on a dead nīkau frond. We all sat on the hillside for celebratory squirm lollies while BG processed the last collection. One mature male specimen collected.

Re-released the male with the damaged eye.

End of day wētā count: 6F : 6M

Finished with 1 day to spare.

And with that, the quest was completed, with 12/12 wētāpunga collected, all mature, and to the correct female : male ratio. Each specimen will go on to improve the status of their species and will go down in history for their duties (or at least Auckland Zoo’s scientific records). 

Since this quest the adults have moved into specialised habitats at Auckland Zoo for the next part of the breeding programme. Their offspring should start to hatch early next year (2022). 

Thanks to the Ngāti Manuhiri Settlement Trust for supporting our work and welcoming Auckland Zoo to their Warkworth office for a cultural induction. The Ngāti Manuhiri rohe spans from Mangawhai in the north, to just south of Whangaparāoa and encompasses many of the islands in Tīkapa Moana (the Hauraki Gulf), including Te Hauturu-o-Toi and Aotea (Great Barrier Island). Volunteer BJ Black represented Ipipiri hapu that are Ngati Kuta and Patukeha, they are Nga hapu o Te Rawhiti.