Review: Tiaki: A shout-out to Aotearoa’s lesser known creatures

Reviewed by Alex Eagles

Author: Jean Donaldson. Reviewer: Alex Eagles.This book is a shout-out to the weird and wonderful endangered species in Aotearoa, those lesser-known creatures that don’t regularly make the news. But they are just as important as the ‘stars’ like kākāpō and kiwi, for they are the foundation of our unique biodiversity.November 2022 release

Apparently, there is no technical term for a group of geckos but one suggestion is 'a glitter.’ The positively sparkling painting of geckos on the front cover of Jean Donaldson's book Tiaki would support this choice for a collective noun.

The glittery gecko in question is the Hura te ao gecko, recently discovered in 2018 and is my favourite illustration of the 17 ‘lesser known’ animals Donaldson highlights in the book.  She also includes another gecko - the barking, moko kākāriki - but sadly, two geckos probably don't a glitter make.

Among other creatures included are our most endangered freshwater fish - the Canterbury mudfish/Kōwaro; the winner of the 2021 New Zealand Bird of the Year - the pekapeka-tou-roa/long-tailed bat; the world's most primitive and most endangered frog - the sweet little Hamilton's frog; and insects like the Mokohinau stag beetle that has only ever been found in one location, now a closely guarded secret. 

Tiaki: a shout-out to Aotearoa's lesser-known creatures, was a labour of love for Donaldson who completed the work as part of a Bachelor of Design.  When I asked how she had decided which animals to include in the book, Donaldson said, "I spent a really long time just learning about all our different native species. Then, to put it plainly, I picked out ones mostly based on how weird they were." 

"Creatures like the Smeagol gravel maggot and the Canterbury knobbled weevil were easy choices. But I also wanted the book to have a range of animals, from birds to insects to aquatic creatures. The other thing that was important was being able to create a narrative about each animal. I was seeking out creatures that had an especially quirky characteristic or an amazing conservation story.

“Ultimately, every creature in Aotearoa is amazing in their own way so it wasn't easy to pick only a handful; Tiaki could have been a very long book."

Several birds make an appearance, such as the world's most endangered seagull – tarāpuka; the only seabird to nest in an alpine environment - the Kaikōura tītī; our tiny hopping Southern Alps rock wren – pīwauwau, and my personal favourite - the wrybill/ngutu pare. The wrybill is the only bird in the world to have a sideways bending beak - always to the right. While ngutu pare breed on braided river beds in the South Island during spring, they spend the rest of the year in the North Island at places like Pūkorokoro Miranda, where you can see them flying in spectacular formations described as 'a flung scarf of wrybill.’

Tiaki means to conserve and protect, and Donaldson's intent was to create a book that inspired intermediate school aged to teenaged New Zealanders to take up the baton as kaitiaki/guardians of our wildlife.

However, the collection of relatively unknown, weird and wonderful critters would appeal to adults interested in unusual wildlife. I thought I knew a lot about Aotearoa's fauna, but Donaldson has uncovered a few species that were new to me.

Tiaki could also be of interest to artists contemplating digital painting. I confess I thought the image of the geckos on the front cover was a photo. I was fascinated and asked Donaldson how she had created the illustrations.

“The illustrations were all digitally painted using Procreate on an iPad. To create each painting I usually start with a couple of reference photos to get the correct characteristics, a realistic pose and the right kind of surroundings for the creature.

"I use brushes that have been created from real oil brush strokes, which is what gives the illustrations a painted feel. As well as keeping to quite a traditional technique in terms of painting. I start with block colours, building up layers of shadow, highlights and details."

Donaldson obviously has creative talent in abundance.

 Reviewed by Alex Eagles