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WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND » In an ancient grove in northern New Zealand, the mighty conifer known as Tāne Mahuta, lord of the forest, is threatened by the encroachment of a deadly enemy.

It is the largest kauri tree known to be living: 177 feet tall, 53 feet in circumference. Kauri, native to New Zealand, are among the world’s longest-living trees, and Tāne Mahuta has been growing in Waipoua Forest for about 2,000 years — longer than New Zealand has been inhabited by humans. It is named after the god of forests in Māori mythology, who is said to have pushed apart the sky father and the earth mother to create space for life to thrive.

But Tāne Mahuta stands just 200 feet from another kauri whose roots are infected with an incurable disease. Kauri dieback, caused by a microscopic, fungus-like organism, has reached pandemic proportions and driven an already threatened species closer to extinction. Nearby, five other kauri are also infected.

Given the age and size of kauri, many Māori view them as distant ancestors. Tāne Mahuta is particularly special to some, for the connection to the Māori creation story. “The threat of kauri dieback to the species is a threat to Māori identity itself,” said Taoho Patuawa, chief science officer for the local Māori tribe, Te Roroa.

That tribe and others are racing to protect the remaining kauri before it’s too late. Māori have taken a lead on conservation efforts, hoping to buy time for development of a cure.

Kauri dieback, discovered in 2006, spreads through the movement of infested soil, often via mud on shoes. Once close to a kauri, the disease’s spores infect its roots, causing them to rot.

The Te Roroa tribe exercised its authority as custodians of Waipoua Forest to close many of its walking tracks entirely. When the government imposed COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, Te Roroa took the opportunity to impose a rāhui, or temporary prohibition on entry, over the whole forest.

Still, monitoring done by Te Roroa indicated that the restrictions were working. According to Patuawa, they were only dealing with “pockets of infected trees in decline.” Te Roroa was sufficiently satisfied to lift its rāhui over Waipoua Forest later in 2020.

“New Zealand needs to drop the sense of entitlement that we have to be anywhere we want to be,” he said. “We need to be a little bit more sensitive to these beautiful places.” — © The New York Times Co.




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