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New guardians for Suwarrow Park

Saturday 15 June 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Environment, National, Outer Islands

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New guardians for Suwarrow Park
Johnnie Tangaroa, right, and Keanu Harawira have been entrusted with the role of Suwarrow’s new park rangers, the caretakers of the island’s ecological balance and cultural significance. MELINA ETCHES/24053121

With their complementary skills and passion for conservation, the newly appointed Suwarrow Park rangers are ready to safeguard the island’s ecology and cultural heritage.

Suwarrow, the National Park and bird sanctuary of the Cook Islands since 1978, is flourishing with abundant marine, bird and wildlife.

And Cook Islanders Johnnie Tangaroa and Keanu Harawira have been entrusted with the role of Suwarrow’s new park rangers, the caretakers of the island’s ecological balance and cultural significance.

Drawn from diverse backgrounds, but united in their passion for environmental conservation, Tangaroa, who has military and construction background and 22-year-old Harawira are both “excited” as they prepare for their new post.

The selection panel for the new rangers consisted of Elisabeth Munro from the National Environment Service (NES), a representative from police patrol vessel Te Kukupa II, and Custom.

NES biodiversity co-ordinator Jessie Nicholson said since Tangaroa and his assistant Harawira have been training for over a month, the dynamics have been good.

“Johnnie having the experience that he has, it’s channelling down to Keanu and they have a relaxed manner and the right attitude for wanting to get the work done. They have been communicating really well with each other and they seem like they make a really good team,” said Nicholson.

Harawira is a grandson of Sally Ben from Puaikura and was formerly employed as a turtle tour guide.

Harawira said he didn’t put too much thought into applying for the job.

“I saw the advert and I thought, I want to do that and experience it.”

He is confident he will enjoy the experience and is keen to learn more about the natural environment of Suwarrow.

Tangaroa is a former soldier and with his experience and local knowledge, he is looking forward to landing on Suwarrow and getting started.

He returned to the Cook Islands some years ago for the solar project which has taken him around the southern group but not to the northern group.

“The initial excitement for me was I’ll be getting to know more of my own backyard,” said Tangaroa.

“This is a privilege. And we will be looking out for each other… it’s the notion like we have in the military.”

Tangaroa is a son of Mii Tangaroa and Tere Tangaroa.

Born and raised in the Cook Islands, he left in 1977 and returned later to work in construction for Eddie Karika before moving back to Aotearoa New Zealand.

As part of their training, the rangers have had discussions with Te Ipukarea Society on the past rat eradication projects on Suwarrow and the monitoring work that needs to be carried out to ensure Suwarrow remains rat free.

They have also had workshops with Te Marae Ora on Public Health Protection responsibilities.

Meet Johnnie Tangaroa –With a background in the military as a combat engineer, Johnnie  has seen action in various conflict zones including Iraq, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa.

His military experience includes construction, water management, and cross-training with institutions such as the NAVY, New Zealand Police, Australian training programmes, and overseas institutions such as the FBI, DEA, and US Marshall services. Bomb disposal developed as Johnnie’s primary role and passion, often on call in New Zealand for combat-related emergencies.

Beyond his military career, Johnnie has been actively involved with organisations like New Zealand Outward Bound and the Department of Conservation (DOC). His contributions extend to community projects such as the Gore Walkway in Bluff and the pier in Chatman Islands.

In his personal life, Johnny finds comfort in his roots, aspiring for stability and cultural understanding. He was part of culture group Orama back in his dancing days and performed in Japan. Among his adventurous life, Johnnie has had his fair share of memorable moments, including a daring parachute jump in 1988, which almost led to his arrest in Rarotonga.

Johnnie brings a great wealth of knowledge and experience, and the National Environment Service is delighted to have him be part of the team.

Meet Keanu Harawira – Keanu is eager to introduce efficient methods to his Suwarrow Ranger role, including general maintenance tasks such as cleaning out stagnant water tanks on the island, clearing areas and blockages.

Keanu brings a unique blend of technical know-how to the role, with hands-on experience in plumbing for over two years and expertise as a butcher. Additionally, his background in construction, including building further highlights his versatility. Keanu’s commitment to water safety is evident through his time as a turtle tours guide with Ariki Adventures. He also brings experience in fishing, showcasing his adaptability to different environments. With a liking for systematic approaches, Keanu is eager to introduce efficient methods to his Suwarrow Ranger role, including general maintenance tasks such as cleaning out stagnant water tanks on the island, clearing areas and blockages.

Beyond his professional skills, his passion for free diving adds an adventurous flair to his character, reflecting his appetite for life both on and off the island. Keanu brings the spirit of innovation, adaptability, and passion, making him a valuable asset to the National Environment Service team.