The return of Pūkaha to Rangitāne 


by Rachael Dell


Pūkaha was once known as ‘the great domain of Whātonga’ – Te Tapere Nui o Whātonga. The forest was lush and dense and stretched from the mountains north of Dannevirke, across to the Ruahine Ranges and back down to Kopuaranga just north of Masterton.

The people of Rangitāne who descend from Whātonga were acknowledged in a formal ceremony, on 8 February 2020, to return Pūkaha to Rangitāne.

Weaving together the korowai of Pūkaha

To understand the significance of the ceremony that marked the ‘Return of Pūkaha to Rangitāne’ we need to travel back… back to the days of Kupe and of Whātonga – the first explorers of the region. A great forest once stood where Pūkaha is today and was significant not only for the wildlife but for the people of the land – the tāngata whenua.

Learn more about Rangitāne

In the days of Te Tapere nui o Whātonga, the people of Rangitāne relied on the forest for the necessities of life. The forest was a pharmacy, or rongoa for healing, it was a wānanga – or place of learning, to understand and appreciate the natural world; it was the pātakakai – to feed and nourish the people, and above all it was a papakāinga (original home).

The story of Pūkaha – then, and now, is founded on a love of native flora and fauna, and on strong partnerships.

For forty years, the people of Rangitāne have worked with the stewards of the 942 hectare reserve – initially with the Wildlife Service and the Department of Conservation – DoC, and now, in partnership with the Pūkaha Mount Bruce Board, who have managed the national wildlife centre since 2006.

Pūkaha is the jewel in the crown – it represents not only a united weaving together of people and place, but it is also recognised as a taonga to be cared for and shared.

Throughout the ‘Return of Pūkaha ceremony’, a feeling of aroha (love) was woven as speakers for Rangitāne and the Crown acknowledged the significance of the celebration. The Governor General, Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy spoke about kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and how “protection of our natural environment resonates with our responsibilities as Treaty partners and global citizens.”

She spoke about our collective responsibility to continue to be guardians of the land with a shared responsibility to protect our wildlife and native forests.  “Pūkaha is a taonga that reminds us of what has been lost. Today the wildlife reserve has great conservation importance for all of Aoteaora and is a symbol of what can be restored.” 


A korowai, three years in the making, was worn around the shoulders of the Governor General, and then passed to each of the speakers for Rangitāne. It rests now in the visitor centre at Pūkaha, for all to see.  It is a powerful symbol that weaves together people and place; connecting stories of the forest – past, present and future.

“Ko tātou ngā kanohi ora, ngā kanohi o ngā maunga, o ngā awa, o ngā papa pounamu.”

We are the living eyes; for the mountains, the rivers, and the beautiful valleys.