Since the beginning, conservation has been a big part of the Rotorua Canopy Tours journey. Our New Zealand eco tours were never just about the ziplines, it was about a mind-blowing inaccessible forest environment – a life changing encounter with the natural world that would delight and inspire New Zealanders. The forest would provide the magic setting – the ziplines and swing bridges simply a way to experience it. So keep reading to hear all about how our eco tours in New Zealand restored an entire native forest.
It all started way back in 2008 when a young guy, James Fitzgerald, had a vision to create an amazing visitor experience. James felt zipline tours would be an amazing way for people to explore our beautiful native forest with little impact on the environment. He wanted people to venture into a native forest and learn why these places are so special and unique to New Zealand.
Photo: The beautiful Dansey Road Scenic Reserve
James as on the hunt for a native forest full of ancient trees for his eco tours in New Zealand. Finally, he found the perfect forest on the outskirts of Rotorua - the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve. It was a 500-hectare Scenic Reserve under the management of the Department of Conservation (DOC). The forest was untouched and has trees over 1000 years old, a prime example of the forests that once stretched the length of New Zealand.
The first sign of a problem
But despite its apparent beauty to the naked eye, big problems hid below. When James first set foot in the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve it was deathly quiet. With total rat and possum infestation, the forest was in poor health – and rapidly declining. No birds could be heard and towering trees and plants were badly affected by pest browse.
So James contacted DOC. He explained his vision to restore the scenic reserve and turn it into New Zealand’s most loved forest, and they granted him the use of the land. James wanted to hear the bird song ringing loud through the forest and made a promise to restore the reserve to see the canopy flourish once again, as it did before humans arrived in New Zealand.
Photo: James with a dead possum
After years of planning incredible eco tours in New Zealand, the building of the course began. During the building of the course James saw possums foraging on the ground in the daytime – highly unusual for a nocturnal animal and a sign of just how bad the problem was. James also decided to set some traps himself and as he walked out of the forest, he could hear pests setting them off already – a sure sign the problem was even bigger than he imagined.
The start of the pest programme
Finally in 2012, Rotorua Canopy Tours was launched and James knew we had to get stuck into the conservation right away. Phase one of the trapping began - discovery. The first step was to monitor the forest to see just how bad the pest problem was. We used monitoring lines, chew cards and tracking tunnels throughout the forest and discovered the forest was infested with invasive pests.
Photo: Getting ready to unload and set up all the manual traps into the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve
Over 750 hours of human labour was put in to cover 50 hectares of land with trapping lines and manual traps. $35,000 dollars was invested in the project and we pulled out over 800 pests in the first seven days alone! Our customers were getting really excited about the project, many taking photos with the dead pests when out on tour. Unfortunately, our pest control methods weren’t sustainable, they were very time consuming and we were running out of money fast.
Photo: All the pests caught on the first night of trapping in the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve back in 2012.
So two years later after searching for another way and getting the funds together, we began phase two and invested in Goodnature traps. Completely automatic and humane, these traps eliminated the extra costs of labour and were just as effective. After three days, we caught another 700 pests and spread to cover another 50 hectares of forest.
We were beginning to get some amazing results with our possum and rat numbers dropping significantly. In early 2016 we had some amazing finds in the forest including New Zealand velvet worms and the discovery of rare species not seen or heard of for over a decade like the striped skink and pacific gecko. These were great signs that the reserve was recovering and native species we returning to the safe haven we had created.
Photo: The striped skink found on tour
In October 2016, we moved into phase three and placed another 300 Goodnature traps into the reserve. The bird life was returning, and with a big population increase, north island robins quickly became regular visitors to our eco tours New Zealand. With a special permit form DOC we began hand feeding wild north island robin and tomtit on our tours - a very special experience and a highlight for most visitors.
Many other rare bird species have also been seen on our eco tours New Zealand including kaka, kereru and morepork. Autumn tours were seeing fungi blooming, a great indicator of forest health and guests were excited to see the spectacular werewere-kōkako blue mushroom throughout the forest.
Photo: Hand feeding the North Island Robin on tour
Spreading the conservation message
We were also inspiring significant change with our visitors. Every customer who comes on our eco tours in New Zealand contributes to the conservation of the forest with a portion of each ticket sale donated to our conservation fund. Our visitors were feeling a sense of accomplishment as they have had a significant impact on something that really matters and have been part of a truly engaging nature experience - one third of all TripAdvisor Reviews were raving about our conservation efforts.
We’ve been absolutely blown away by our amazing guests who have donated to our Canopy Conservation Trust too – juts like Jackie and Robert Van Dam who donated $2,000 to help us maintain this beautiful paradise. We’ve received over $200,000 in donations and trap sponsorships and sold over $40,000 in Goodnature traps to customers wanting to do their part and start pest control in their own backyards. Our customers have been coming back time and time again and love noticing all the changes in the forest from their last visit.
Photo: Jackie and Robert Van Dam donating to the Canopy Conservation Trust
The community was also getting involved in our mission too. Local hotels are donating money to the trust, The Quest has donated over $5,000 over the last 6 years and The Silver Fern has donated $4,000. We've have been getting out into schools to talk to them about our conservation efforts and even features as part of the curriculum at many schools. We’ve also had some American College students help us out with trapping while learning all about our pests here in New Zealand and what we’re doing to look after our native wildlife.
Photo: American College students helping to reset traps in the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve.
Our conservation mission has given each of our team at Rotorua Canopy Tours a real sense of purpose. Every single one of our team members get stuck in and have been involved in implementing each phase of the conservation programme. They are all super passionate about the conservation work we do. The impact that our team have on the environment gives them all motivation and fulfilment.
Photo: Our guides teaching guests all about how they are part of our conservation efforts
Where we are now
Our first three phases covered the majority of the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve we have permission to use but we have since added three more phases to our conservation programme. We now have 624 Goodnature traps plus many manual traps and a massive 220 hectares under pest control. At the beginning of 2019 we started phase six which involved doing some pest control in the forest just up the road from the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve - we did a blitz over seven days and pulled out 181 animals!
Our most recent forest monitoring had some pretty fantastic results, particularly with the amount of fruiting during the mega mast. We had a really low number of rats at just 16% - non treatment sites saw rats at an average of 90% at that time of year. Another amazing result was to have possum numbers at 3%, which is super low! We would expect to see much higher in forest blocks similar to ours and Department of Conservation guidelines aims to get possums below 5%.
We are continuing to notice the positive impacts on wildlife too. In 2019 we noticed a lot of long-tailed cuckoo (koekoeā) returning to the forest which is a testament to our low predator number as pests affect the population of cuckoos by destroying their habitat - another great win!
Over the past 8 years we’ve seen some massive positive changes in the forest as we’ve removed thousands of pests and our native species have begun to thrive. The speed of the forest’s regeneration has been much faster and more than we had ever expected. The comparison between the forest on our eco tours in New Zealand in 2013 and 2019 speaks for itself!
Photos: A photo taken in 2013 and 2019 in the same spot shows the massive difference in the forest
With phenomenal results to date, we are excited to see what we can achieve in the future. So far this year we’ve already been doing our regular pest control monitoring and resetting of our trapping network. Later in the year we will be running a bi-annual blitz, replenishing and rebaiting all traps to keep on top of all the pests in the forest. We will also be doing monthly foliage monitoring and bird counts to keep track of the many changes in the forest and opening weta motels three times a year to monitor their numbers.
Photo: Rebaiting traps in the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve.
We’ve come a long way since the beginning when our first lot of trapping came back with hundreds of pests every night. Our long-term goal is to completely restore the forest and have it 100% pest free. We still have plenty of work to do but we have made some incredible changes and are well on the way to restoring the forest back to pre-human existence. We are super passionate about our environment and playing our part towards the national Predator-Free 2050 goal.
We so proud of the all the conservation work we’ve been doing here at Rotorua Canopy Tours but all of this wouldn’t be possible without our amazing guests who come on our eco tours in New Zealand. We’re excited for the road ahead and what amazing conservation achievements we can make together.