Tāne Mahuta, The Most Sacred Tree In New Zealand Is In Danger

Tāne Mahuta is the biggest living organism in New Zealand: 45 metres high and 2,500 years in existence. Unfortunately, today, this symbolic tree is threatened by a dangerous illness.

Tāne Mahuta, The Most Sacred Tree In New Zealand Is In Danger
Tāne Mahuta, The Most Sacred Tree In New Zealand Is In Danger

Between 1,250 and 2,500 years old, it overlooks New Zealand’s land (Aotearoa in Māori) from a height of 45 metres. The name of this giant kauri (Agathis australis) comes from the God Tāne and means 'Lord of the Forest': Tāne Mahuta. This tree, one of the most extra-ordinary on the planet, is the vestige of the former subtropical rainforest which once grew in the Northland Peninsula but today, is threatened by a fatal danger.

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A fast and dangerous illness

In 1972, researchers discovered the first trace of the micro-organism Phytophthora agathidicida on the Great Barrier Island. Since then, the pseudo-mushroom oomycete has continued to spread inland, causing the illness, known as the kauri’s decay, in Agathis australis.

The pathogen is transmitted through the muddy ground linking the trees. The zoospores (reproductive cells) of Phytophthora are also active in water and can move of their own accord on soggy ground, at a speed of 70 centimetre an hour, making a formidable opponent for the kauris.

In order to reduce the spread, people entering the forest are asked to clean the soles of their shoes, before spraying them with disinfectant. They are also asked to stay on the marked-out trails to limit the risk of contamination. Unfortunately, a study in 2016 showed the inefficiency of these methods, ignored by no less than 83% of visitors.

Prevention methods are too slow and lenient

Consequently, Matthew Hall – researcher at the University of Wellington, working on the relations between men and plants – writes for the online newspaper The Conversation: 'From my point of view, the most note-worthy and frustrating aspect of this [prevention] programme is the stubborn resistance against the closure of trails to the public, who, along with wild pigs, make up the principal carriers of the illness.'

A Māori tribal group named Te Kawerau ā Maki, endowed with customary authority (mana whenua) over the Waitākere forest, in the Auckland region, continues to highlight that closing the kauri forests from humans is the only way to protect them. In November 2017, a temporary closure was put in place (rāhui) through the entire area, resulting in frustration felt in the face of inefficiency and lack of respect for the prevention methods.

Unfortunately, this measure was not supported by law and the public continued to circulate around the forest. On the 1st of May of this year, the Auckland Counsel finally decided to close the majority of the paths, an action supported by a similar proposition by the Conservation Department. However, as for Te Kawerau ā Maki and Matthew Hall, these actions were neither sufficient nor have they been put in place quickly enough to maximise the chances of saving the kauris.

As a major tourist attraction, at the moment Tāne Mahuta is not benefitting from the right protection. The trails which lead to the tree are judged to be sufficiently reliable and visitors continue to flock to see the 'Lord of the Forest'. But for how much longer? The clock is ticking and the threat to this thousand-year-old tree, which connects the Māoris to their land, is getting heavier and heavier.

A strange organism is keeping this ‘zombie tree’ in New Zealand alive A strange organism is keeping this ‘zombie tree’ in New Zealand alive