Pacific News Minute: Iconic Trees of New Zealand Threatened by Fungal Disease

Jul 18, 2018

Credit Sylvain Machefert / Symac / Wikimedia Commons

You’ve probably heard about Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, a fungal disease that threatens an iconic tree species here in Hawaii. But another fungal disease is threatening the majestic kauri trees of New Zealand.

2,500 years old, Tāne Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest, stands more than 160 feet high, 45 feet across, and, by one estimate, six months away from a fatal infection. Other kauri trees just 200 feet from it are already infected.

The culprit is a pathogen that causes root rot; what’s called kauri dieback disease is almost always fatal. There is no cure. The victim is described as New Zealand’s most treasured tree. In an essay for the Guardian Australia, Eleanor Ainge Roy said the kauri is prized for its beauty, strength, and use in boats, carvings and buildings.

Since as little as a pinhead of infected soil can spread the disease, it can theoretically be transmitted by birds and pigs, but research suggests that its mainly spread by people.

Boot cleaning stations have been set up, but one report said 83 percent of hikers didn’t use them. Some forests have been closed, but prohibitions are widely ignored.

There’s some dispute on just how bad things are. Some experts warn that the kauri stands on the brink of extinction. Others scoff that such dire alarms are overblown. But it does looks like time may be running out for Tāne Mahuta.

Tāne Mahuta
Credit itravelNZ / Flickr

"Tāne is the nearest thing to a sentient being that we can measure time by,” Amanda Black of the Bioprotection Research Center at New Zealand’s Lincoln University told The Guardian.

“For Maori in particular,” she said, "it is their ancestor. For them to lose trees like that is equivalent to losing family members.”