Go beyond the fence: Zealandia urban ecosanctuary has a new leader in the person of Dr Danielle Shanahan

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When Danielle Shanahan left high school, moving away from Wainuiomata to study ecology at the University of Otago, there was talk of a huge new shrine in the heart of Wellington, a green space that was meant to bring back birds in the capital.

“I remember being pretty inspired, but it was always a bit of a wacky idea,” Shanahan recalls.

Five years ago, Shanahan joined the team at this sanctuary, becoming Director of Zealandia Center for People and Nature and then Deputy Managing Director. Today, she’s the managing director – and she has ambitious plans for what will happen next, with the hope that Zealandia’s impact ripples through town.

“The shrine is where our heart is, but we see ourselves as an organization that goes beyond the fence,” says Shanahan, sitting at a table in the veranda of Zealandia’s Rata Cafe, the rain staining them. windows, the green texture of the sanctuary for its right.

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Shanahan says her first job with Zealandia was the perfect opportunity, at the right time.

ROSA WOODS / Stuff

Shanahan says her first job with Zealandia was the perfect opportunity, at the right time.

After earning a master’s degree in ecology in Otago, she moved to the United States, working in places like the Smithsonian Museum, and spent time in Myanmar, studying the relationships between people and nature. “I spent my 20s flitting around doing this stuff,” she says. But she kept abreast of the news of the ecosanctuary at Wellington Gate.

She was living in Australia, having just completed her doctorate in landscape ecology, studying the connection between people’s well-being and their experiences with nature, when the stars aligned to bring her home.

Her sister had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Shanahan was already looking to get closer to her. “It turns out that the most perfect job in the world was announced at the same time. “

She joined Zealandia in 2016. Since then she has overseen gigantic tasks. More recently, she oversaw the emptying of the lower tank to get rid of the invading perch that had invaded it.

It was the largest project of its kind attempted in the world. It will be a few more years before they can be sure that every perch has been removed. But Shanahan says she is “pretty confident” that it was a success.

Shanahan in 2016, when she started her first role at Zealandia.

Maarten Holl / Stuff

Shanahan in 2016, when she started her first role at Zealandia.

Taking the helm of Zealandia at the end of September, Shanahan has a planned roadmap. The number of staff has doubled since she joined the team and the number of volunteers has increased by 10% to 500.

Her plan – Shanahan is a avowed planner by nature – is to help other conservation projects and local businesses solve problems that might otherwise not be possible, using both the weight of experience and the influence of an organization like Zealandia, and the resulting agility. to be a small independent entity.

Removing the huge pine trees from the sanctuary is an ongoing project. At one estimate, it will take almost 50 years. The species is not native and takes up space that other trees could occupy, but it does provide habitat. “The problem is, under those pines are kiwis and tuatara.”

Freshwater mussels, or kākahi, are expected to be reintroduced to the upper tank around May, and common bullies, a freshwater fish, around the same time.

In addition to her day job, Shanahan always finds time to publish research papers, the latest – a study to determine whether love of nature is hereditary through pair-twins analysis – is on its way to completion. ‘completion.

Its goal for next year is for the sanctuary to expand its reach beyond its physical perimeter – and not just in terms of its overflowing bird population. Working with local businesses, iwi and conservation groups allows the shrine to make a difference without taking the lead, says Shanahan.

Environmentalist David Mudge, center, and Danielle Shanahan carefully sort the seeds when transferring New Zealand's only parasitic plant, Pua o te Rēinga, to Zealandia's lawn.

ROSA WOODS / Stuff

Environmentalist David Mudge, center, and Danielle Shanahan carefully sort the seeds when transferring New Zealand’s only parasitic plant, Pua o te Rēinga, to Zealandia’s lawn.

The sanctuary has started to accommodate translocations of species, such as that of Pua o te Rēinga, or dactylanthus taylorii, a native plant also known as the “flower of the underworld”.

The Sanctuary to Sea Watershed Project aims to improve fish habitats and migration routes in the Kaiwharawhara Creek watershed, into which Zealandia Reservoir empties, and to create forest corridors for birds leaving the sanctuary.

Shanahan hopes that the 130 local businesses in the watershed will come on board and that the project could lead to a lasting collaboration.

High on his to-do list is improving the landscape outside the shrine. Shanahan says cities tend to fall victim to “biotic homogenization,” the process by which two or more spatially separated ecological communities become increasingly similar over time.

All over the world, species that happily coexist with human activity, if not thrive on it – for birds, think of sparrows, blackbirds and Indian mynas – are becoming dominant, and so the ecological landscape of each city will eventually. look alike.

Wellington is probably the only city in the world that can say otherwise, says Shanahan. His favorite spot in the sanctuary is around the upper reservoir, where the bird density is “just phenomenal.”

“Wellington gives us the chance to see what happens next. Does the nature around us encourage people to take care of nature? “

Kaka thrives at the shrine, and Wellington may be the only city in the world where biodiversity is increasing.

Jericho Rock-Archer / Tips

Kaka thrives at the shrine, and Wellington may be the only city in the world where biodiversity is increasing.

In this way, Zealandia “changed the course of nature,” says Shanahan.

But something else threatens this trajectory: climate change. “I have seen changes in the reproductive patterns of species,” she says.

Severe weather events that occur later and later in the season mean more nest failures and less spring. The warmer weather encouraged the wasps, which preceded and took food from other invertebrates.

“Collectively, it paints a picture of the change in the system,” she said. The only thing for this is to be prepared, says Shanahan – filling ecological niches to create a resilient ecosystem, restore native forest to sequester carbon, and ensure that the environment outside the fence allows for migration. to cooler climates.

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