“It never entered my mind to study,” admits Turangi-born, Waikato-bred Nataalia Lunson who has called Tauranga home for the last 16 years.
Nataalia will join more than 115 other students at the inaugural graduation event at the new Tauranga campus. It will be a day to reflect on the hard work that landed her a job with the Department of Conservation (DOC). Her role as a Community Ranger is varied and “full of surprises”. On any given day she can be helping survey native species like kokako, kiwi and kakapo, coordinating volunteers to maintain DOC tracks, or organising events for conservation advocacy. Nataalia’s interest in endangered species may even see her return to postgraduate study in the future.
Of Waikato Maniapoto, Whakatōhea and Tūwharetoa descent, knowledge of and respect for native flora and fauna was an intrinsic part of her upbringing. But a feeling of disconnection with her environment provided the catalyst for changing artist Nataalia’s career path. “I felt like I was losing my habitat,” she says. “I felt compelled to do something to save it.”
After completing a Toi Ohomai Diploma in Environmental Management Nataalia transitioned into the third year of a bachelor's degree at Waikato’s Tauranga campus. Concerned about increasing pollution in the environment, shrinking native biodiversity and degrading freshwater systems, she chose to specialise in applied biology to better understand the full extent of the problem. “I wanted to learn what we are dealing with and help to find solutions,” she says.
The tertiary landscape wasn’t all smooth sailing for the creative free spirit. Nataalia was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder. Wearing purple-tinted glasses with special filter lenses helped alleviate her symptoms; however, light sensitivity and difficulty with concentration still affected her comprehension at times. Perseverance and connecting with nature through conservation work helped Nataalia navigate work, study and family commitments along with the extra challenge of Irlen.
Encouraged by former student Craig Montgomerie, Nataalia attended a work day within the virgin, unlogged forest of Otanewainuku in the heart of Oropi. That first encounter had Nataalia hooked and she became a regular volunteer with the Otanewainuku Kiwi Trust. She began by maintaining her own trap line to control the number of predators (stoats, ferrets and weasels) in the forest and went on to try her hand at everything from bait laying to reduce numbers of rats and possums before bird breeding season, to the placement and collection of ink cards to track predator numbers.
Nataalia took part in kiwi and kokako monitoring, helped out at the Warrenheip kiwi crèche, and was involved with the 2016 translocation of kokako from Kaharoa to Otanewainuku. Being in close contact with native species was the driver that saw Nataalia become the, self-confessed, “most enthusiastic volunteer ever”. She impressed others with her bird calling skills coaxing native species out from the depths of the forest but says she had never considered it a gift, simply something she had always done. “I grew up in a cultural setting where it’s very natural to interact with animals in your environment,” she says.
As a result of a talk Nataalia gave at Tauranga Intermediate for kokako recovery, the school put on a production which addressed the need to continue pest control for the protection of endangered species. “Sitting in the audience and hearing the songs of the kokako and stories told by the children in te reo Māori unfold was a true prize,” she says. “When children are engaged and want to do their bit for the conservation effort, whether it be a performance like Flight of the Kokako or a drawing of an endangered bird, it is so encouraging and rewarding.”
Caring deeply about her whenua (land), Nataalia is keen to find the balance between conservation and economic sustainability. She believes wholeheartedly that where land health is struggling so too is the health of communities and encourages others to get involved in conservation work. “I’d encourage anyone to get involved in volunteering – it’s good for the soul,” she says. Nataalia’s view on life may be ‘rose-tinted’ for practical purposes, but her outlook on the importance of preserving what we have is simple: “Look after Papatūānuku (Mother Earth) and Papatūānuku will look after you.”