Turning back time at Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne

Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest places in the world, Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne is a must-visit

Zealandia Ecosanctuary Kaka flying




53 Waiapu Road

Arrive in Wellington and you’ll be greeted with birdsong. The sound of native birds in every tree in town can be heard thanks to some forward-thinking folk who created a pioneering sanctuary that’s turned back time on Wellington’s native environment.

The world’s first fully-fenced ecosanctuary, Zealandia is an incredible slice of wilderness. It's not what you’d expect to find a few minutes drive from the central city, but Wellington is all about the unexpected.

Zealandia Have You Ever Camilla Rutherford 2 1

Flourishing wildlife

New Zealand was once an isolated land free from mammals, which meant native plants and birdlife flourished, including flightless kiwi. But with the arrival of humans came pests and predators, which left a lot of this wildlife extinct and many species endangered. Zealandia, a pest-proof ‘urban island’ is the closest thing you’ll ever find to being in New Zealand before humans were here.

Dr Danielle Shanahan, Director for Zealandia's Centre for People and Nature, has “the most incredible job overseeing the conservation and research work at Zealandia”, explains that the sanctuary is “a glimpse into what Aotearoa once looked like, and what it could look like in the future.”

A Tuatara at Zealandia

More than 140 rare little spotted kiwi live in Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, and they can often be seen on night tours of the sanctuary.

ZEALANDIA Kaka native birds nature

The best way to explore Zealandia is with a guide - they really know their stuff. The two-hour tours that depart four times a day are an ideal introduction, letting you soak up the scenery while guides track down even the rarest wildlife. You could spot tuatara (prehistoric reptiles that have a real ‘third eye’), giant wētā that look like armoured grasshoppers, or kererū (a chunky native pigeon whose flapping wings sound like a helicopter in flight) - to name just a few. 

If you’d rather explore Zealandia by yourself, start with the exhibition for background information and a map, and then head out to walk the tracks. There are some bridges and a dam to cross, dozens of intersecting tracks to explore, and birds aplenty to find with help from the guide on the visitor map. Dr Shanahan says "just be sure to take plenty of quiet stops for the best chance of spotting things — all the wildlife here is wild."

Returning in the evening for a night tour is an undeniably special experience. You’ll depart around dusk, explore the sanctuary by torchlight and spot creatures that only come out at night like cave wētā, ruru/owls and glowworms. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see a rare little spotted kiwi, and you’ll warm up with a cup of bushman’s tea made with native kawakawa.

Regional benefits

The ceaseless efforts of Zealandia staff and volunteers mean that not only do New Zealand’s rare species thrive within its fences, but outside too. The wider Wellington region benefits from a ‘halo effect’ of this conservation effort, and Danielle says "few days go by where I don’t receive a call from a member of the public glowing about seeing kākā in their backyard. This is a species that was completely gone from the region before its reintroduction to Zealandia. The influence of the sanctuary on the whole city provides hope that we can have a different future for biodiversity — it just requires some hard work."

Danielle believes that what Zealandia has achieved shows that "cities don’t have to be places devoid of native wildlife. In fact, in some cases, it can completely flourish there." And by visiting the sanctuary, you’re doing your bit towards keeping this wildlife thriving for another generation.

Aerial view of Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary and Wellington City
Three kaka chicks at Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary
Group of people on a Twilight Tour at Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary
Zealandia Kea scratching foot

Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne was named one of the world’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019 by TIME magazine.


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