A Legend Among Us

Celebrating Eddie Saul’s 80th birthday at the Takitumu Conservation Area on 12 January 2018.  Left to right: Raetea Rongo, Dr Teina Rongo, Eddie Saul, and Ana Tiraa.  Photo: Jackie Rongo.

It was around 5:30 pm on Friday afternoon when we started the climb up the mountains of Takitumu through a wide plateau of orange plantations.  After a fair distance inland, the road narrowed to a single track up the mountain on the right side of the valley, wide enough for only one vehicle to drive through.  It was my first time here, and I was a little nervous viewing the steep drop on the left of the track through the passenger window of our Hilux while holding our 5-year-old asleep in my lap, and our 8-year-old lounged in the tray of the truck.  For Teina, though, this was a road well-travelled in his youth when he was an Environment Officer in the 1990s, assisting in the rat poisoning project to save the kakerori (Rarotonga flycatcher, Pomarea dimidiata), a small bird endemic to Rarotonga.

Left: A 1-year-old kakerori (Rarotonga flycatcher, Pomarea dimidiata) photographed in Atiu.  Right: a nesting pair of kakerori, saved from the brink of extinction by Eddie Saul’s efforts in Takitumu Conservation Area.  Photos by: Gerald McCormack (Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project).

In our slow trek up the mountain, the road would widen in select spots just to constrict again, and we eventually passed a sign marking the Takitumu Conservation Area (TCA).  After an extremely narrow bridge (where I was certain we would slip off into oblivion….Teina much more confident than me that we could make it!), we emerged at a shelter obscured in the midst of a beautiful forest.  With the truck engine off, we were hailed with kakerori songs and moā kirikiri (fruit bats) flying overhead as the light faded with the setting of the sun. 

 

Edward Saul greeted us in the TCA Shelter with a big smile, delighted that his phone invitation was accepted by our little family.  We were also greeted by the likes of Ian Karika, Gerald McCormack, Wayne King, Mataiti Mataiti and his partner, and John Wigmore with Ana Tiraa, Kelvin Passfield, Jolene Bosanquet, Peter Heays, Tamara Suchodolsky, Jacqui Evans and Andy Olah rounding up the lot after us while the light faded and the candles were lit. 

 

We were all there for a common purpose: to celebrate the 80th birthday of Papa Ed, a person whose efforts in bringing the kakerori back from the brink of extinction touched the lives of everyone gathered in this shelter.

 

I had heard of Papa Ed even before meeting him through Teina’s stories of his time working at the National Environment Service where he along with his fellow co-workers Vavia Tangatataia, Ben Glassie, and the late Aitua Kuro would hike up the mountain early in the morning to set rat poisoning bait stations for several years.  Funny stories ensued of them singing loudly on the ridge to the hike down the steep slopes where Vavia tiredly leaned against a rotten tree — after Teina and Ben had hiked around it — only to go tumbling down the mountain.  Another story of eating sandwiches prepared by Papa Ed from meats in the fridge, and when one of the boys opened the fridge to get something out discovered that rat bodies were also in there for preservation.  Needless to say, they were put off from their lunch! 

         

At Ian’s invitation, the floor was open to those gathered at the shelter to celebrate Papa Ed to share their story of how he influenced their lives.  Wayne spoke of an introduction to Rusty Nails (a 50/50 mix of Drambuie liqueur and Scotch whisky) by Papa Ed, and handily produced a flask and took a birthday swig in his honour.  Peter shared his stories of Papa Ed as a sailor, and humorously described his last sail which sliced through a Sunburst boat bearing the Boyd kids in Muri Lagoon. 

         

Kelvin spoke on behalf of Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) and how TIS and the Takitumu Conservation Area have cooperated over the years.  He also acknowledged the founding TIS members who were present to honour Papa Ed’s work, and spoke of Papa Ed’s s honourary Lifetime Membership of TIS.  He gave special thanks to Ian for his tireless preparations for this exceptional evening especially by clearing the track so we could make it up the mountain. 

         

Jolene expanded on Papa Ed’s influence on TIS’s work, and how it was amazing to see the gathering of people at this occasion who have been touched by him, with special mention of the late Tania Temata.

 

Ana shared her experiences with Papa Ed and his late wife Maddie, and how his poetry influenced her to take up the pen.  Jacqui spoke of their interesting conversations while she worked at NES, which helped shape her today with her Marae Moana work. 

         

Teina spoke on behalf of Vavia, Ben, and the late Aitua, sharing the interesting sandwich story and acknowledging how Papa Ed had also shaped him and cultivated his interests in Biology, starting up the ridge and ending up permanently on the reef.  He also acknowledged those in the shelter who influenced him, such as Jacqui on the marine environment and Gerald on taxonomy. 

         

Gerald topped off the speeches, detailing how he has been touched by Papa Ed’s dedication to saving the kakerori.  Of most important note is that without Papa Ed’s persistence and tenacity over the last 25 years, the kakerori would no longer be in our world.  His efforts at setting rat traps, laying poison, and collecting data, have been key at achieving an increase from as few as 29 birds to their current numbers of almost 500.

 

For me, it was surreal to be in the presence of a legend.  And to be in this magical, secluded valley among those who were instrumental in founding a conservation movement in the Cook Islands that began with their common love for this little bird was even more humbling.

         

It was finally Papa Ed’s turn to speak, where he thanked everyone who was able to make it to share in the evening’s celebration.  He highlighted his New Zealand Maori and English ancestry, and how moving to NZ observing red-billed gulls on his decking sparked a love with avians that lasted a lifetime.  He dabbled in jobs such as in the Wildlife branch of New Zealand Internal Affairs and Editor of the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research among others.  In 1989, Ed chose to become involved in the Kakerori Recovery Programme that started in 1987, after a fellow told him he would be “studying the bird into extinction”.  Right then and there he vowed to do what he could so that would never eventuate.  Ed was also involved in the establishment of the Takitumu Conservation Area, which was declared in 1996 by the three-landowning tribes of Ngati Karika, Kainuku and Manavaroa.  The Kakerori Recovery Programme is one of the main activities of the TCA.  

 

Papa Ed highlighted the challenges of obtaining funding to sustain the work, talking about different funders and their expectations for the project to be completed anywhere from one to three years’ time, when this was a lifetime’s effort.  He generously thanked Teariki Rongo, who wasn’t able to make it on the evening, for his foresight and efforts when he was the Director of NES in working with the landowners to establish the Takitumu Conservation Area, which without this effort none of the work would have been possible.  Finally, he mentioned he would bequeath his estate upon passing to the Friends of the Kakerori, a trust yet to be formed, to continue this effort of saving the kakerori, a bird species that has meant so much to him. 

               

Thank goodness the shelter was lit only by candle light as the tears flowed freely from my eyes. 

Papa Ed will officially turn 80 on 5 February, celebrating among friends and family in New Zealand.

To support the Takitumu Conservation Area effort in saving the kakerori, please contact Ian Karika at 55499 or email at birds@oyster.net.ck

Writer Jackie Rongo is the Assistant Secretary of Kōrero o te `Ōrau.  For more information on the NGO and to support their work, please email korerooteorau@gmail.com.

© 2019 by Kōrero o te `Ōrau.