Grand in size, the wētāpunga, or ‘god of ugly things’, is one of the largest insects in the world. Due to the introduction of animal pests and the destruction of our native forests this precious taonga disappeared from the New Zealand mainland but managed to survive on one off-shore island – Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier Island). It may seem a giant task, establishing the largest of the wētā species on predator free islands, and many may question the importance of ‘why’.

Auckland Zoo Ectotherm Expert Don McFarlane puts it best, “Not enough time and attention is given to invertebrates. Quite apart from them just being fascinating animals, their life history, the evolutionary history, they have a right to be here. And so much depends on their survival.”


Establishing Wētāpunga on Motuihe Island

Follow Auckland Zoo's ectotherm keepers as they set out to release zoo-bred wētāpunga on Motuihe Island

Auckland Zoo, with our conservation partners, have now successfully released over 5,000 wētāpunga – a huge feat, after years of mastering the husbandry and understanding the science behind breeding this endemic species.

Te Motu-a-Ihenga (Motuihe Island) was the fifth island in the Hauraki Gulf chosen to release wētāpunga on to, in a three-year partnership between Auckland Zoo and Motuihe Trust with the support of iwi Ngāi Tai ki Tamaki, Ngāti Paoa, Marutūahu, Ngāti Rehua and Ngāti Manuhiri.

The logistics of an animal release are anything but simple. Being nocturnal creatures it’s important to keep them comfortable for their move to the island. The wētāpunga are transferred inside individual bamboo homes which are then tied to specific trees, chosen to best suit their needs. The wētā then has the option to continue to use the bamboo for safety, or to emerge and explore its surroundings.

“Before you place the bamboo, look up and see what it connects with, imagine yourself as a wētāpunga emerging, where are they going to go? They want cover and they want to be amongst food, so try to put your head in the space of the wētāpunga at night. We don't want it to be immediately vulnerable to natural predators that are already here,” Don says.

The island is a special place, and so much work has gone into returning it to its natural state, made possible by a group of passionate and dedicated people. The Motuihe Trust was formed over 20 years ago, and had one aim in mind – restoring the island from an active farm to a natural ecosystem.

“It started with clearing the farming animals and then making the island pest-free, and we’re really lucky to have some residual historic bush. We’ve had just over 15 years of an active planting programme, and so the trees are all coming back and the birds are back and we are steadily introducing new species which is wonderful,” says Bella Burgess of the Motuihe Trust.

“We're very lucky to have so many Gulf islands because they are effectively predator proofed little oases’ so it's a safe way to have species that are really vulnerable to predation. We're really excited to work with Auckland Zoo and we are hoping that it's going to lead to greater advocacy for wētāpunga,” said Bella.

The excitement of so many people gathering for the conservation of an insect was palpable. Kids and adults alike asking curious questions, the wondrous gasps as they see this impressive taonga for the first time, and both a sense of intrigue and pride on their faces – it truly was a joyous occasion.

“Invertebrates are the new front line for conservation. Everything depends on the health of the invertebrate communities. Without invertebrates we all go. We’re losing them faster than anything else. And it goes unnoticed that’s the sad thing, because they're small, and this is why wētā are such great ambassadors. They're big and humans are impressed with size, so it captures the imagination. It's an ambassador for the rest of the millions of invertebrates out there that are still a lot in trouble,” said Don McFarlane.