Simon Collins believes you only need to stand in the Rotokare Scenic Reserve at dawn to hear that Taranaki is humming.

It’s the sound of the return of rare and threatened native bird and wildlife species to the area, and it’s the sound of community collaboration and commitment that has been critical in turning a dying forest and wetland into a thriving biodiverse environment.

“This sanctuary is a gift to the future generations and it is a unique asset for Taranaki,” says Simon, the Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust sanctuary manager.

“It’s an inspiration to all communities in the region, and the whole country is looking at this example of collaboration among individuals, other community-led conservation organisations, and businesses.”

The Rotokare Scenic Reserve, 12km east of Eltham, is a 230-hectare predator-free sanctuary, ringed by an 8.2km, 2m-tall predator-proof fence.

Uniquely, it is an area where ecological restoration and human recreation co-exist and is encouraged – summer boaties are welcome on the 17.8ha lake, runners and walkers make use of the trails, and camper vans and tents are able to set up camp and enjoy the surroundings.

Threatened native bird species, such as pāteke (brown teal), hihi (stitchbird), and tīeke (saddleback) have been returned to the region and are thriving. The mātātā (fernbird) population has grown so much that birds are being provided to other restoration projects. And in one of many conservation collaborations, the Rotokare sanctuary and Taranaki Kiwi Trust are breeding kiwi
and releasing 30-40 a year to other areas with the aim to repopulate all of Taranaki.

“The catalyst for all this was a committed community and passionate volunteers,” explains Simon. “This place was dying and these passionate locals saw an opportunity.”

In 2004, the Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust was formed with the original vision to raise $30,000 to eradicate possums and run pest control. Four years later, the trust had raised more than $3m, built a $1.9m fence, eradicated 12 pest species, and created the first pest-free area in Taranaki.

“Today, nine species have been translocated back into the sanctuary, three of which were extinct in Taranaki,” says Simon.

“This is the best possible example of what the Towards Predator-Free Taranaki vision is – and we are actually past that point within the sanctuary.”

The return, repopulation and then supply of native species is a multi-decade programme. Ultimately, the vision is to have the sanctuary “spewing” out wildlife naturally to the surrounding environment.

Simon says the sanctuary is an example of the Taranaki community’s determination to succeed and eagerness to work together. And the financial support of the community, and more than 40 significant partners or fundraising streams, has been crucial.

“The success of the trust provides the opportunity to generate wellbeing in the community,” he says.

“The 30,000-odd visitors we have here each year generate a positive flow-on for businesses around us, we have a volunteer programme and provide an opportunity for people to visit, and we provide hands-on environmental education, creating  relationships between children and species."

“We hope that this sanctuary is something positive in the lives of all people.”

In honourable memory of Simon Collins. Simon’s legacy continues with his wairua instilled as kaitiaki at Rotokare by Ngāti Tupaia.