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Source: Department of Conservation

Eastern Whio Link is not your ordinary conservation project. Eastern Whio Link is a hunter and fisherman-led conservation project situated in the upper reaches of the Waiokea Gorge (between Ōpōtiki and Gisborne) with a goal to protect the whio (blue duck).

Eastern Whio Link founder, Sam Gisbon, recalls growing up in Waioeka, going tramping, hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather. “There was an abundance of whio and kiwi, seeing a whio was always a cornerstone of the fishing experience.” However, when he returned to his hometown after some years away, he noticed a massive decline in whio around their usual hunting and fishing spots.

Co-founders of Eastern Whio Link Geoff McLaughlan and Sam Gibson.

“I remember coming home and having a feeling of shock, I thought that the whio would be around for a long time. The decline in whio felt like a loss in my connection to the place.” Whio numbers have been steadily declining [since the 1980s] due to increased river flooding destroying nests and stoat predation.

With only four whio pairs left within 25kms of river in 2019 the Eastern Whio Link project began. Led by Sam Gibson and friend Geoff McLaughlan, a group of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts teamed up to bring the whio back to local waterways through trapping. “The land has looked after us for many generations, it’s our responsibility to take responsibility and look after it back,” says Sam.

Hunting and fishing are a big part of conservation culture worldwide. 

Using 250 donated traps, the Eastern Whio Link team protected 25kms of riverbank with trap lines. Luckily, the team was able to put the traps in place before the breeding season leading to a huge success within the project’s first year of operating. All four pairs successfully hatched chicks and from those pairs the team saw 20 whio chicks fledge (more than tripling the current population).

Eastern Whio Link offers hunting and fishing trips with a difference. The group want to bring people in and remove the barriers from spending time in their local environment. “Hunters know so much about our ecosystems, we have an opportunity to transfer that knowledge into a way of thinking that informs our decision-making process around biodiversity”, Sam says.

The project partners with several schools, encouraging youth in the community to use the bush as a classroom. “It’s amazing to see the young people come in, learn about their local environment and leave with their heads held high.”

Sam shows rangatahi from Huringa Pai some of the finer points of trapping. Eastern Whio Link has a wide reaching education programme throughout the East Coast.

In March this year, Eastern Whio Link won the BioHeritage Challenge Community Award in the NZ Biosecurity Awards for its work on predator control and mahinga kai (protection of natural resources). Their future goal is to reconnect whio from Te Urewera right through to the East Cape by extending the project’s reach to help other communities of hunters and fishermen and encouraging them to look after biodiversity.

Just one whanau of the many whio chicks Eastern Whio Link has helped fledge in the past two breeding seasons.

The growing success of the Whio Forever Recovery Programme couldn’t be achieved without the efforts of nationwide community partners such as Eastern Whio Link. If you would like to get involved with the project, you can find more information on their website or through Facebook.