Nick Waipara New Zealand

It takes a village to protect an ecosystem

"Everyone can play a part in promoting plant health and preventing disease."

For scientist Nick Waipara, community engagement is vital in the fight against plant diseases. Nick has spent the past decade fighting kauri dieback disease – caused by the fungus Phytophthora agathidicida – and advocating for the use of both the latest science-based approaches and indigenous Māori knowledge (Mātauranga Māori) to help save forests and inform biosecurity responses in New Zealand. 

Kauri trees are intrinsic to the native forests of New Zealand’s North Island, where healthy trees may live for over 1 000 years, nurturing over 17 species under their canopies. They are treasured entities for the Māori people, who have many historical and cultural connections to their forests and consider tree health as an indicator of their own well-being.  

However, since 2006, thousands of kauri have died from kauri dieback disease, which once in the soil is virtually impossible to eradicate. “As a plant pathologist, I’ve never seen anything so virulent,” says Nick. “It is decimating the juvenile trees as well as the seedlings and the iconic thousand-year-old trees.” 

Treatments include preventive measures such as hygiene protocols for forest visitors (the disease is being spread by humans); and disease management measures such as phosphite injections, which help some trees recover. 

Everyone can play a part in promoting plant health and preventing disease,” says Nick. “For kauri dieback disease this includes participating in hygiene practices before entering a kauri forest, monitoring kauri on your land and becoming a “citizen scientist”, or adopting some of the indigenous approaches that are underpinned by Mātauranga Māori.” 

Along with other biologists, social scientists, Māori and community groups, Nick has been successfully mobilizing an army of “rescue ambassadors” through the Kauri Rescue programme. Under this citizen-science model, participants co-design experimental approaches, collect and report data, and then analyse their results to help refine the project. The local indigenous knowledge is a crucial part of this and is already providing successful solutions to protect kauri from the disease. 

Meanwhile, Nick is also co-leading government-funded scientific research aimed at improving our understanding of kauri dieback disease to help manage the risks to New Zealand’s native ecosystems.