The history of Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre is inextricably linked with that of the conservation of and – a local farmer and amateur ornithologist. The takahē being the indigenous bird species that was thought to be extinct and was rediscovered in 1948, while Elwyn Welch was the farmer from Mount Bruce area who was a dedicated amateur ornithologist successfully breeding native bird species, including takahē.
The Pukaha Mount Bruce Forest is a protected Forest Reserve and the last surviving 942 hectares of the ancient Seventy Mile Bush that once stretched from Masterton to central Hawkes Bay area on New Zealand's North Island. This forest was once a huge green cloak over the landscape, with diverse tree species, including towering rimu, totara and northern rata, as well as many ferns, shrubs, climbers and herbs. Moreover, the forest was alive with the sounds of many different bird species, such as huia, kōkako, saddleback, piopio, kaka and kiwi. But most of the bush was destroyed and converted to farmland.
The forest was acquired by the government in 1867 – bought from the Maori – and the Mount Bruce Forest was reserved and set aside in 1889. The reason for this is not quite clear. Three possibilities have been suggested. It was reserved because (a) it was the last remaining part of the Seventy Mile Bush, or (b) settlers might need a supply for building in later years, or (c) bird life was an important source of food for the local Maori.
Anyway, some 55 ha of the total 942 ha were further protected as a Native Bird Reserve, administered by the Wildlife Service. A captive-breeding facility for native wildlife was established on these 55 ha, building on local farmer Elwyn Welch’s attempts to rear and breed the rediscovered takahē (which started in 1957), the first species that was introduced to the Reserve. Local man Elwyn Welch became an expert in captive raising of birds, including endangered birds, leading to successes with takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) in the 1950s.
The Wildlife Service successfully bred brown teal in 1962, and whio (blue duck) in 1964, but did not succeed in breeding takahē until 1977. In the same decade, a large number of brown teal, buff weka and kakariki were released. The facility was renamed as the National Wildlife Centre (NWC) in 1980. The range of species held at Mount Bruce increased during the 1970s and 1980s, with successful breeding being recorded for North Island saddleback, little spotted kiwi, great spotted kiwi, Antipodes Island parakeet, black stilt, hihi (stitchbird), kereru, North Island kōkako, North Island robin, Auckland Island teal and grand skink.
Since 1981, the NWC at Pukaha Mount Bruce has been jointly managed with the National Wildlife Centre Trust, initially in partnership with the NZ Wildlife Service, and later (since 1987) the Department of Conservation (DOC). This arrangement allowed the DOC to concentrate on captive breeding programmes and the Trust to focus on visitor benefits. A visitor centre complex was built and opened in 1983. Already two years later the nocturnal house for kiwi was built.
During the 1990s and subsequently, the focus of captive breeding at NWC was on breeding threatened species for release as part of national recovery programmes and on development of captive husbandry techniques for species that would require captive-breeding programmes. Major programmes focussed on species such as Campbell Island teal, shore plover, North Island kōkako, hihi and kākā.
Integrated management between the NWC and the adjacent Mount Bruce Scenic Reserve began with the release of captive-reared and translocated kākā in 1996. The successful reintroduction of kākā – a New Zealand's first – led to the necessity of intensive predator control in the forest, and this was followed by releases of North Island kōkako and North Island brown kiwi from 2003.
In 2001 the entire forest became part of the wildlife reserve, extending the area from 55 to 942 ha, increasing the capacity to breed a variety of native species, including birds of course. About 100 km of footpaths were cut and thousands of traps and bait stations were scattered, setting up an area for wildlife with low predator pressure.
In 2006 the Pukaha Mount Bruce Board has been established, a strong partnership between the Pukaha Mount Bruce Board, Rangitane o Wairarapa and the DOC. In July 2013 the Pukaha Mount Bruce Board took over the operation of the Visitor Centre, education programmes and retail activities from the DOC. In October 2015, it took over the operation of the captive breeding programme from the DOC as well, while the DOC is contracted to undertake the forest restoration programme at Pukaha Mount Bruce on behalf of the Board.
Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, now a well-respected and successful Reserve, is still situated about two kilometres from 'Kelvin Grove', Elwyn Welch's farm where it all started.
The Centre's mission
Though not officially called a zoo and not a member of the Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre operates like a regular zoological facility with a mission to conserve and restore wildlife, operates breeding programmes and runs a visitor's centre focussed on education. Probably the only difference with a regular zoo is their sole focus on native wildlife and tree species. Currently restoration mostly concerns birds, but will expand to bats and reptiles such as the tuatara.
It has established a safe haven for species that once used to thrive in New Zealand. Additionally, the captive-bred individuals are being reintroduced in the wild. Bird releases started in 1996 with nine kākā, the bush parrot. Currently there's a colony of approximately 160 kākā in the Mount Bruce Forest, and the goal is to establish a population of 600. Furthermore, in 2003 North Island brown kiwi and North Island kōkako were successfully reintroduced to the area. Over 15 kiwi are currently living in the forest and two in the nocturnal house. For the breeding programme, they incubate kiwi eggs to protect chicks and thus give them the chance to become adult.
The Campbell Island teal captive-breeding programme was notable as being one of the two major components in the successful Campbell Island teal recovery programme, along with the 2001 eradication of Norway rats from 11,300 ha Campbell Island. Captive-bred teal were introduced to Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) in 1999 and 2000, and a mix of captive-bred birds and ‘wild’ birds from Whenua Hou were successfully reintroduced to Campbell Island in 2004/06. This resulted in termination of the captive-breeding programme in 2008, which had achieved its main goal.
The Centre runs an extensive education programme called the Learning experiences Outside the Classroom (LEOTC), giving school children the chance to see the kiwi and to learn about environmental problems facing New Zealand.
(Source: Wikipedia; Elwyn Owen Arnold Welch from Teara – the encyclopedia of New Zealand; Department of Conservation – Pukaha Mount Bruce captive management strategic direction 2010–2015; website Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre; Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre by Colin Scadden, 2000)