Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Rangatahi (youth) in Northland and Wellington are learning how to build businesses based on protecting native wildlife.
In a bid to help native wildlife recover in Pōneke (Wellington) and Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), tauira (students) in these regions are learning how to monitor and eradicate predators.
But there is a twist – the rangatahi also have a goal to create a business from taking care of the environment, as part of a project by Papa Taiao Earthcare called Predator-Free Schools.
In Pōneke, tauira at Wellington High School have created tracking tunnels from recycled plastic, turned old fabrics into sustainable grocery bags known as ‘boomerang bags’, and built rat traps to use in their school grounds.
“We’ve also done beach clean-ups and introduced bins into school,” says Aidan, 17. “But the rat trapping is my favourite because we can immediately see that we’re making a real difference.”
“I was surprised at how many rats we caught – way more than I expected,” adds Noah, 14. “I think the boomerang bags are the best things to make money from, as they’re quite cheap and we could sell them at quite a low price but sell lots of them.”
The tauira are also building and selling wētā ‘hotels’, which they will sell on Neighbourly (a neighbourhood-specific digital ‘noticeboard’) for locals to put into their gardens.
“We’re making wētā bachelor pads!” jokes 17-year-old Gwen. “No, really – I’ve learnt that only one male lives in each space but have more than one female over to stay!
“I’ve also really enjoyed learning the construction skills – like how to use the power tools, which I’ve never done before.”
In Te Tai Tokerau, tauira at Huanui College and Taipa Area School have been trapping possums then selling the fur to clothes manufacturers – a win-win for both the environment and wider economy.
“It’s fun and I enjoy it – you make a lot of money from the fur and it’s good for the environment,” says Connan, 13, from Huanui College.
First, the tauira collect information and then double-check it, with guidance from Papa Taiao instructor Shaun Gifford.
For instance, some honey farmers told Taipa Area School students that possums did not visit a particular place where mānuka grew. But when the tauira set up a ‘bite test’ (using chew cards or tasty wax) to check this, the marks revealed there were actually about 50 possums in that area.
Afterwards, the tauira also found that the possums they caught had eaten mānuka flowers, revealing that possums can be a threat to Aotearoa’s mānuka honey industry as well as the environment.
“I have learnt heaps about possums, like what they eat, their life span and how they have babies,” says 17-year-old Davis. “And I was surprised to learn how much damage possums do to trees as well as killing birds.”
Marty Taylor, founder of Papa Taiao, says that this project has been a game-changer for Davis: “He was about to drop out of school before participating in the Curious Minds Papa Taiao Predator Free Schools programme in Northland. Now he is totally engaged with the programme and is likely to gain university entrance and about 50 Level 3 NCEA credits.”
Davis now makes about $1000 a week by clearing areas of possums. He is also learning to be an instructor for Papa Taiao, in which he will teach other rangatahi across Aotearoa about pest monitoring and control.
“I really like doing the pest monitoring, like using the tracking tunnels to find rats and stoats as well as possums,” says Ryan, 15, from Taipa Area School.
“When I first started we caught 30 pests in the woods by our school - I was just astounded,” adds Tyla, 17, from Huanui College.
Isla, 14, from Huanui College says, “I’m starting to think about how to take the knowledge home. We have lots of birds where I live so I want to get rid of pests from there too.”
Davis and the tauira are now working on an action plan to clear predators completely from 1000 hectares of Russell Forest and then the entire Kōwhairoa peninsula, after which they will install barriers to prevent reinvasion.
Similarly, tauira in Pōneke are already starting to think about how to set up and organise similar projects and enterprises in the future.
“When I was younger I tried to set up an environmental group but it didn’t work out,” says Alex, 14, at Wellington High School. “So I love the fact that I’m able to be part of this mission and learn how to organise it – and to do that well, in a way that works.”
Photo credit (top photo): Marty Taylor.
Papa Taiao Predator Free Schools is run by Papa Taiao Earthcare in partnership with Zealandia and Predator Free Wellington, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.