As well as fabulous national parks, New Zealand has a number of smaller wildlife sanctuaries that provide much-needed habitats for threatened bird, animal, insect, and plant species. Much of the natural New Zealand environment has been decimated by European colonialism and farming over the last two centuries, but many sanctuaries are successfully regenerating pockets of land, eradicating predators, and providing conditions for New Zealand's native flora and fauna to flourish. These places are not just tourist attractions but at the forefront of conservation efforts and research.
Zealandia is an urban eco-sanctuary that is in the process of recreating New Zealand's pre-human environmental conditions, but they've given themselves a 500-year timeline to achieve this, so don't expect to see this during your visit! The area is enclosed by a 5.3-mile fence that keeps predators out. Zealandia has successfully reintroduced more than 20 New Zealand wildlife species, such as kiwis, takahe birds, and tuatara lizards. Visitors can take day or night tours to spot this native New Zealand wildlife. It's located near central Wellington.
Motuara Island (Marlborough Sounds)
Motuara Island is one of the last islands in Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds before you reach the open ocean of the Cook Strait. The whole island is a wildlife sanctuary and a particularly good place to see birds. It acts as a nursery for rowi kiwi birds, which have been transported there from near Franz Josef Glacier, where their native habitat has been practically destroyed by predators. Other birds have also been transferred there. Motuara Island is also a significant place in New Zealand history, as it was here that Captain James Cook proclaimed British sovereignty over the South Island in 1770. It can be reached on wildlife-focused boat tours from Picton.
Mou Waho (Wanaka)
Mou Waho Island sits in the middle of Lake Wanaka. Like other sanctuaries, it is a pest-free environment where native plants, birds, and insects thrive, particularly weka birds (which vaguely resemble kiwis, and are sometimes mistaken for them by travelers). Mou Waho is especially beautiful because there's a lake on it: a lake on an island in a lake! It's a popular half-day destination from Wanaka as there are short walks here, and it's also possible to camp on the island.
Tiritiri Matangi (Hauraki Gulf)
In the Hauraki Gulf about 18 miles from Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is another island sanctuary, and one of New Zealand's most important conservation projects. Used for farming for more than a century, it was stripped of almost all its native bush, but this was replanted over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, the island is around 60 percent forest and 40 percent grassland, and all mammalian predators have been eradicated. It's a haven for rare tuataras and takahe. Tiritiri Matangi can be reached via ferry from downtown Auckland.
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari (Waikato)
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a "mainland ecological island" surrounded by a 29-mile pest-proof fence. The ancient forest within is a refuge for some of New Zealand's most endangered birds and animals, such as kiwis, takahe, giant weta, and tuataras. Visitors can walk and hike on the mountain, and take guided nature walks with a conservationist. The sanctuary is less than an hour's drive southeast of the city of Hamilton.
Brook Waimārama Sanctuary (Nelson)
The Brook Waimārama Sanctuary in the city of Nelson is the largest fenced-in sanctuary for endangered plants and animals in the South Island and the second-largest in the country. It's home to native birds such as the kereru, tui, fantails, and moreporks, and there are plans to reintroduce kiwis, kakas, kakarikis, and kakapo. There are walking tracks along well-maintained trails, some of which are suitable for wheelchair users, and you can also get guided walks here. The sanctuary is a short drive from central Nelson, and outside the busy mid-summer season and school holidays, it tends to only be open on the weekends.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary (Dunedin)
In the hills above Dunedin city, the Orokoui Ecosanctuary is home to a huge range of native birds, and you can also see tuataras in an enclosure. Although native New Zealand birds are generally thought to be rather muted in color, you may be surprised by the vibrancy of the takahe, tuis, and kakas at this ecosanctuary. It's about a half-hour drive from the center of town, and there's a handy cafe on site with good views.
Ulva Island (Rakiura/Stewart Island)
An island off an island (off an island), Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is a small wildlife sanctuary that's part of the Rakiura National Park, off Rakiura/Stewart Island, south of the South Island. It's never been milled for its timber and has been pest-free for more than two decades. There are easy walking tracks around the island, suitable for various ages and abilities. A couple of miles offshore from Oban, Ulva Island can be reached by water taxi or on a private tour. You can't stay on the island overnight.
Kapiti Island (Kapiti Coast)
Off the Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington, Kapiti Island is one of New Zealand's most easily accessible island nature reserves. Here you'll find coastal birds like shags and gulls, as well as forest birds like tuis, bellbirds, kaka, and kereru. Moderate walks can be taken on the island, and the views from the top of the 1,700-foot peak are spectacular. Only approved tour operators can take visitors out to the island, and it's particularly popular in summer, so it's usually necessary to book ahead. Trips are also dependent on the weather.
Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary (Picton)
The Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary is an ongoing project attempting to restore the native forest to an island in Picton Harbour, in the Marlborough Sounds. As well as the native birds you can expect at most wildlife sanctuaries in New Zealand, at Kaipupu you might also see seals around the jetty in the cooler months. There's a circular walking track around the island, which passes through old-growth forest and recovering native bush. It's a short boat ride from Picton, by water taxi or kayak. Allow two hours to complete the circular track.