Episode 14: Predator Free and me (Part 2)
Transcript for episode 14
[NORTHERN BROWN KIWI CALL]
[ERICA]: Kia ora, I'm Erica Wilkinson, New Zealand's acting Threatened Species Ambassador, and this is the DOC "Sounds of Science" podcast.
Every episode, we talk about work being done behind the scenes by DOC's technical experts, scientists, rangers, and the experts in between.
Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science.
This is part two of our chat with Brent Beaven, the Program Manager for Predator Free 2050.
In the first part, episode 13, we covered Brent's conservation experience with memorable moments like chasing sea lions with a stick, and catching mohua in his socks.
In this episode, we're talking about the latest innovations helping us get to Predator Free 2050. We also cover 1080, staff safety, and feral cats. So some quite big topics.
Here's the DOC Sounds of Science podcast with Brent Beaven, part two.
[ERICA]: I've heard a rumour that you've got a really great white shark story.
[BRENT]: That's so funny. I know -- this is just an absolute privilege actually, because when I was on Stewart island, it's one of the epicenters of great white shark activity because there's so many seals there. So this is just a total system in action, which is really cool.
So we've got so many fur seals-- the prey predator thing
[ERICA]: the prey predator thing
[BRENT]: the prey predator thing. So the great white sharks will come down every year. They travel all the way down and just hang around the seal colony, filling up on fur seals.
And then at the end of the breeding season, of the seal breeding season, about June, they take off again. They go all the way to Australia or New Caledonia almost in a straight line.
The reason we know that is because we had a science program operating down off Stewart Island for a few years tagging them, putting satellite tags and so we could see that they were going all the way to New Caledonia in a directly straight line.
And I, over a few seasons, had the opportunity go out with Clinton Duffy and a few others to tag these animals. And to tag them you have to actually catch them and get them alongside the boat.
[ERICA]: No thank you.
[BRENT]: Or attract them in so they come right up to the boat. And then there's a tag you can just jab into to them. But these animals are seven meters long, which is just-- five to seven meters long.
And the thing you don't realise when you think about that is the depth and the width of them.
[BRENT]: They'd stand about a metre, a metre and a half in height on the ground.
[ERICA]: And that’s just all teeth!
[BRENT]: And they look like they're just lazily swimming around, well, and they are because they're not afraid of anything.
And I love the way they would check out the boat, as they would-- because they-re never sure what the boat is, you've got tuna and everything. You're trying to get-- you're putting oils out and then you have a bait that you drag in front of them to get them to come right up to the boat.
[ERICA]: Oh God.
[BRENT]: But they would check out the boat by biting, so come up to the back of the boat and just bite it [GNAWING NOISES] to see what it was. And that is how they check everything out.
So I think that's why people get bitten. They're not eating them, they're sort of, well what's this. I'll check it out. [GNAWING NOISES]
[ERICA]: Oh, my God.
[BRENT]: So, yes, And we would at times have five sharks just swimming around the boat.
[BRENT]: And when you put the lure in you sort of … jab jab?
[ERICA]: The tag?
[ERICA]: Sorry, the tag.
[BRENT]: The tag, yeah. Just on a pole and when it got in really close, just jabbed in just behind the dorsal fin.
So, I mean, they also bite each other, so they've got quite thick skins. So it doesn't really bother them too much.
[ERICA]: And did the back of the boat have quite a thick skin?
[BRENT]: No, we had to replace the trimtabs on the boat every year because the sharks would bite them off.
- Predator Free 2050, can we do it?
[BRENT]: If you think of it, it's just as basic as scaling up our current eradication technology which we've been able to do. So if we scale up eradication that is one key element.
The other key element is defendability. So the reason we don't really do eradications on the mainland is because we can't keep the pests out.
So we use islands which use water to keep them out. Or we use those fenced sanctuaries like Zealandia or Maungatautari to keep-- the fences keep the predators out.
So if we can solve the defendability and we can solve scale, which is just logistics, how do we do things that bigger, bigger, bigger scale, then we're pretty well set to start to roll it out across the country.
So this is where the focus is at the moment, is on the science, the technology, the understanding of how we do it, as opposed to lots and lots of hectares.
We've got a really cool program happening in the science space with defendability, calling farms as barriers at the moment. So it's using farms --because we've got to do eradication everywhere -- so we're suddenly going to think, oh, how do we do eradication on farmland?
[BRENT]: And if we achieve eradication on farmland and you leave everything in place, can you use that-- so if a stoat comes in, will it get captured, or caught, or killed, before it gets out the other side? And if you do that, you've suddenly got a new barrier or a new fence.
And I look at a map of the North Island, you can pretty quickly divide the North Island up by farms.
[BRENT]: And you move them, they're movable barriers, so that's fantastic. You'd unlock so much of Predator Free just through that simple solution.
[ERICA]: So you've talked about farms being used as barriers. What else can be used as barriers?
[BRENT]: Barriers is … you've got to think of it in the broader sense like we're talking about with farmland. So there's some work going on around what they call virtual barriers round trap lines, things like that. Can you have enough traps in place to create a barrier?
Miramar is looking at the airport runway as a barrier because animals don't really like crossing open ground. So can you use that sort of thing to prevent movement?
[ERICA]: Well, if I was a mouse I wouldn't want to cross that while there were planes coming in.
[BRENT]: No, no you'd get quite a flat mouse.
And the other things that are happening, we've got our fences, and the ZIP guys, Zero Invasive Predators, a little start up company that's doing lots of research in this space in innovation and engineering. So they've got a low-cost low fence which keep everything out except cats.
So that's in development. They're trying things like lights—if you're a nocturnal animal and you don't like lights, can you use lights as a barrier?
And then we've got alpine ranges. So the Southern Alps is actually quite an effective barrier for these animals because they don't like going across.
And big rivers, they're not impermeable, but if you have a big river system it can be a really good barrier where you lower your invasion to low enough that you can treat it.
[ERICA]: Like the Perth Valley.
[BRENT]: Like the Perth Valley. Perth Valley is an area in South Westland where ZIP is trying a eradication and defend site at scale. So it's about 10,000 hectares.
The reason they chose that site is it's got two rivers that run around it and protect it. So they get some invasion but manageable. So this is the point; barriers don't have to be impenetrable. But they have to get you to a point where you can manage the reinvasion.
And it's not just the barriers to things coming in, but it's how do you detect them, and get rid of them when they're in there. And this is where we're making a lot of advance and a lot of investment into things like artificial intelligence, and smart devices, and data connectivity.
So then you get into a spot with a camera or something like that that can tell you, ‘oh rat's turned up here’. And if it's really smart then you'd go, ‘rat's turned up here and I've killed it for you. Don't worry about it.’
[ERICA]: That's such a game changer for that ability to defend sites.
[ERICA]: Because in one of your blogs you talk about the PAWs sensors in the AI cameras. Can you tell us a bit about those?
[BRENT]: Yeah, so one of the things when we achieve eradication, we want to know if something gets in. And we want to know really quickly so we can protect against it.
And if we had been on Ulva Island those years ago when the rats came in, if we had something on site they could tell us immediately that a rat's arrived, we would have prevented a population establishing. So it's a huge cost saving.
And if you think about our islands at the moment, we go out every four months to do a bio-security check. So you're giving animals quite a period.
We're developing a couple of devices. One is called PAWS, which is Print Acquisition of Wildlife Surveillance.
[ERICA]: I just want to be in the room when they were thinking, how can we make it say PAWS?
[BRENT]: Yeah, make it sound like PAWS. Yeah. Let's say it's a sensor pad, like a cell phone, like when you tap on your smartphone? It's sort of like one of those laid down in a tunnel.
The animal runs through, and it's through its print patterns, it can tell you whether it's a Norway rat, a ship rat, a possum, a cat, a ferret, a stoat.
And so once it's done that, it's then linked to send you a text or an email or whatever you want, so you immediately know that that animal is there.
And then the same with the camera's, there's a little work going on with different cameras. Some just standard cameras but infrared cameras seem to be really creating quite a breakthrough.
And the infrared cameras can sit there, follow an animal, and then through artificial intelligence through its shape and movement and what it does, tell you whether that's a possum, or a rat, or a stoat.
And again, linking it in to some form of data connectivity through your cell phone or an email, it will tell you that that animal's there immediately.
Next stage for us is linking that to something that will deal with that animal immediately.
[ERICA]: Like a drone?
[BRENT]: Yeah, or there's one thing that's been explored by ZIP is a lure. So just think of it this way, there's a sort of mayonnaise-based feeding product there that the camera's on and stoats love it. So they'll go and just eat this mayonnaise. that's freshly dripping out over a period of time.
They get to really love it and they get into it. And the camera goes, oh, stoats turned up at this one. Where you could use your AI to turn on another four, maybe, around that have mayonnaise with a toxin in it.
And then the stoat will go to the next one, next one, the next one and it will get killed. Or you link it into a new type of trap, the Cacophony guys have started developing a new trap that just looks flat. It's open, there's nothing there.
And the animal just walks into this area where the lure is, or whatever's brought it in. And then the sides shoot up and it's all enclosed in the space. So it's things like that-- that you know, can really change the game.
Imagine having a trap where, if you're a kiwi or tuatara, you can walk all the way through it and nothing happens. And it's only when it goes, ah, you're a possum,
[ERICA]: we know you’re a possum!
[BRENT]: we need to get rid of you, that it goes off.
[ERICA]: That's so clever. Grant Ryan from the Cacophony project has talked about very interesting things in terms of-- he showed me this trail camera footage of a trap, and how all these rats went around it. And it took one rat going into it, and then they all followed it as well because they follow the rat in front.
[BRENT]: Yeah, they follow sensory clues, they hunt by smell. It's the same. So they'll follow those clues to food. But we've got a new part of our activity is funding product development. So it was new technology, which is heaps of fun. We've got a fund called Tools to Market, which is just literally what it does. It pays for a new tools to come in. And people that are developing it, we give them funds to help bring these products through to market.
And Predator Free 2050 Limited, the company that is doing work in this space as well, a charitable company, it's got one called products to projects. And it's very similar. They work side by side.
So one of the ones I like in there that has been developed is this thing called a Spitfire device. And it's sort of getting to that smart technology end of it.
So it's got a possum one where a possum stands, and through its weight and its height, they can tell it's a possum, and it's got to climb up to get it.
And then it will squirt some, what they call pap, it's a new type toxin, (well it's not new but we haven't used it much in the past), gets sprayed onto its belly fur, then the possum goes and licks it up. And that's how it gets poisoned. So we're funding that.
And these guys also do drones which are really cool. So we're funding this heavy lift drone which should lift 300 kilos, and are looking at a ways of doing aerial distribution from the drone.
And as we think about our carbon into the future, that becomes really important. But we might develop that pap stuff we're talking about, we're trying to develop an aerial sausage bait for stoats and ferrets and cats--wild cats.
So if we can do that, then this drone could be a distribution mechanism. Or we might end up in a space where we're getting traps that you can distribute by air.
So it's just trying to link all these different projects together as well as part of-- I suppose it's part of what my team does is make sure they don't operate in isolation but get pulled together into a—
[ERICA]: That it's a national overview.
[BRENT]: Yeah. Well, we've got a program running around long- life lures so we just bringing out a rat one. It should be in market soon from Victoria University. And they're working on another one, a multi-species lure.
These things are chemical, but they're as attractive to rats as peanut butter is. But they'll last six months smelling fresh as a daisy the whole way through.
So they sit in this space. The advantage is once you get that, if you've got someone overlooking the program, we can link that to the PAWS unit so that the PAWS guys have a long-life lure that's attracting animals, and you can link it to something else to get an animal into it. So they all overlap and they all need to come together to start to leverage off each other, to create the step-change we need to deliver Predator Free.
[ERICA]: And then we can get there even faster.
[BRENT]: And then we get there.
[ERICA]: So we know that a business's usual approach is the pathway to extinction, as we've called it, but some people don't love the use of 1080 in Aotearoa. Are you worried about that sentiment, the anti-1080 sentiment?
[BRENT]: Oh, yes and no? I think, the reality is—well,I don't think, I know, the reality is that we need to keep using it. It's an effective tool until we get to the point of achieving eradication, we need to keep these animals alive.
And the only way to keep them alive is to remove the predators. And at the moment, the best methodology at large landscape scale space, on the scale like a million hectares sort of space we need: is aerial 1080.
There's still a space for people to do trapping, and everything else, and lots of other stuff, but we can't walk away from that tool at the moment.
I think most New Zealanders get that.
I know there's a real vocal minority, but they are in the minority.
So as long as most New Zealanders understand the logic, and we're doing it right, then I'm not so worried about that. But I do worry about the impact on staff and people.
And I think its … when people personalize it in a New Zealand society and really, really target people, I just think that's unfair. It’s not how we … If you ever described what a New Zealander's character is like overseas, I don't think you would ever include that element of it, because it's not how we want to be as a country. And I dislike that bit.
[ERICA]: That's such a good way to put it. Do you get it [anti 1080 targeting] personally a bit?
[BRENT]: I have. I'm a bit of a social media luddite. So I just don't look at comments, then it doesn't bother me. But I have personally had it. I remember when we were first discussing possum control on Stewart island, I held a public meeting about it, and there was no possum control on Stewart Island at the start and we were trying to find a way to go through it.
And there was so much anti-1080 sentiment -- because we were holding all options open because we wanted the discussion. I had to get the policeman to come down in uniform to stand behind me at the meeting, because it was that hot and heated and targeted.
So, yeah, I think everyone who's worked in predator control, pest control, and conservation, runs into that at some point in time.
But I'd just encourage people to reflect on the style of debate and discussion they're having. Because, like I said, when you personalise it onto people who are passionate about their life's work, and what they're doing, and they're usually getting paid poorly to try to look after these species -- they're in it for the right reasons and are mission driven and this is what they want to do.
So to then personally target them because of your belief, I think that you should really seriously reflect on that.
[ERICA]: Absolutely agree. Predator Free 2050 is the big three, but it excludes feral cats. Tell me about that.
[BRENT]: It doesn't totally exclude feral cats. We've got this idea that where they're an issue at place, we need to manage them. And they are a key predator.
[BRENT]: I don't think people really understand how much impact feral cats are having. Yeah, they're an apex predator. They're our little mini-Tigers that are going around and killing all the little animals.
I remember seeing one cut open that had over 20 skinks in it. They just vacuum up our lizard fauna particularly, and ground nesting birds.
So places like [Maukahuka] Auckland Island, down in the Subantarctics, and the Rakiura Stewart island, we've got cats squarely in the target for getting rid of them, from those places, they just don't belong there.
But the problem we've got with feral cats, with cats in general, why we can't bring it into a national eradication program is we can't control the breeding.
There's lots of pet cats and there's lots of stray cats. And because we've had such a long history of pet ownership with cats, there's very little legislation, or ability, or social capital, or buy-in to the idea of containing, or controlling, or not letting cats breed.
And look a feral cat, and a stray cat, and a domestic cat … there's not really a difference between them. The only difference is how well fed it is. So the only reason the cat stays at your home generally is that you're feeding it. Because they are the same animals as the wild cat. You see those populations of stray cats sitting around towns? They're just producing so many offspring that are feeding into the rest of the country.
So at the moment, probably mainly due to social issues, we just can't include those animals within a nationwide eradication.
[ERICA]: Okay. And on [Maukahuka] Auckland Island they're looking at eradicating them completely?
[ERICA]: With the PAP?
[BRENT]: We're looking at mice, feral pigs, and cats on the Auckland Island. If we can do that one, that's the last island in the New Zealand subantarctic group to have pests taken off it.
[ERICA]: And the biggest, right?
[BRENT]: And the biggest.
[BRENT]: So we did the Antipodes Island with the Million Dollar Mouse program a couple of years ago. We did Campbell Island before that. And we’d done Enderby.
So we will be the first country in the world to completely clear pests off all of our subantarctics, which is one of our World Heritage sites. They are absolutely amazing places. So we're really aiming for that. That'd be great and it also creates that step change, starts to scale again, because it's 47,000 hectares.
So it's starting to grow our understanding of scale and logistics and what we need to do. So I'm really looking forward to that bit happening.
[ERICA]: That's incredible.
Tell me about one of your weirdest days at work?
[BRENT]: Okay [laughs] so when I was on a trip down to Campbell Island. And we had this fantastic job where we wanted to do disease screening across the whole island because we were reintroducing Campbell Island seal which had been completely removed from the whole island by rats.
And we had a back-up population, mainly out of captive breeding, that they were being just kept alive. And once we achieved rat eradication we could take them back. But we didn't want to bring a new disease down that might affect wildlife.
So we were catching birds and swabbing them, taking blood samples, all for these disease screening, not something you'd do at home but they were for these disease screening requirements.
So we were catching albatross, and mollymawks, and everything we could get our little hands on. But I was particularly over at Northwest Bay we wanted to get yellow-eyed penguins.
And at this one location there were close to 100 yellow-eyed penguins. I think it was 96 yellow-eyed penguins would come down this one trail in the morning to go out to sea to feed.
[ERICA]: Just in a line?
[BRENT]: And they were literally in a line coming down the site to go offshore.
[BRENT]: And we were catching them, and I got in a bit of trouble because I caught three at once. So I had one under each hand pinned to the ground, and one held down by my foot, and my boot on its back. And that was all good till I realized I couldn't move. So I was a bit stuck as to what did I do next to get these penguins in a bag so we could get them-- eventually someone came over and helped me.
[ERICA]: --And helped you, saw your plight.
[BRENT]: Yeah. Oh, the albatross are amazing. We caught a wandering albatross to take blood from it. And it was like a hose pipe running down its legs. It's such a big blood vessel coming down the leg to take blood from.
[BRENT]: But they're very big birds, very, very big birds. I mean they've got a 3-meter wingspan. When you get them up close, they're a very big bird.
[ERICA]: Wow. Is there a single most important takeaway that you want people to understand about Predator Free.
[BRENT]: Yes. Predator Free 2050, or removing these predators, is our responsibility, and our responsibility for our kids. We live in this country and the only way to save our wildlife, the things that make us unique, and make us who we are as New Zealanders, our kiwi, our whio, all those birds we see every day on banknotes and that, but not in the wild, the only way to look after them is to remove these predators.
And I think it's our responsibility as a nation to make sure we protect what was here before us. On top of that, we can do it. We can do it! It's mapped, it's ready! If we all buy into it and we all take our own actions towards it and we act like a team of 5 million then we will knock this one off.
And it will be one of the greatest things we ever look back on in our history and say, gosh what an amazing event we did as a group of people. And it'll be a day where I'll be able to sit with my kids and feel very proud of what we did as a nation.
[ERICA]: And what can I do at home? Trap?
[BRENT]: You can trap. You can conceptually support what we're doing, which is great! [Laughs] But trapping by yourself, a little bit limited on its impact and what it can do. But if you start to link with your neighbours and people surrounding you, and you start to grow the scale, then together as a community you can make a difference.
[ERICA]: Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming in today, Brent. This has been such an incredible learning curve. Thank you very much for what you're doing for Aotearoa.
[BRENT]: My pleasure, thank you, Erica.
[ERICA]: That's all for this episode. If you like what you heard show us some love with a five-star rating.
The DOC Sounds of Science podcast is available wherever you get your podcast so subscribe now and never miss an episode.
This is the much awaited second part of Brent Beaven’s Predator Free interview. In this episode, we’re talking about upcoming innovations as well as current predator control tools, and yes that includes 1080. This episode is a big swing and we hope it gives you some important context.
- The bird sound in this episode is the Northern brown kiwi
- The music used is Let’s Get Down to Business by Cast of Characters
- Brent’s excellent blog series about Predator Free is available on the Conservation Blog
Te reo Māori translation:
Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science. (Hi! My name is Erica Wilkinson and this is a podcast about Sounds of Science).
Episode 13: Predator Free and me (Part 1)
Transcript for episdoe 13
[NORTHERN BROWN KIWI CALL]
Kia ora, I'm Erica Wilkinson, New Zealand's acting Threatened Species Ambassador, and this is the DOC "Sounds of Science" podcast.
[ERICA]: Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science.
Today on the show, we have Brent Beaven, our expert in all things Predator Free.
[BRENT]: Kia ora, Erica. Ko Brent Beaven ahau. I'm with the Department of Conservation, looking after the Predator Free program.
[ERICA]: Fantastic to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
[BRENT]: It's an absolute pleasure.
[ERICA]: You've just said that you're in Predator Free. So tell me about your role at DOC.
[BRENT]: I'm the Director or Program Manager at the Department of Conservation who sort of owns the Predator Free program. So we got given the responsibility by government to manage it, create the strategy, and make sure it operates effectively as a whole. So my role is sort of working across government, across organizations, to make sure we're all focused on the work we need to do to deliver Predator Free.
[ERICA]: It's a pretty big job.
[BRENT]: At times, it is very big. But it's very rewarding, as well.
[ERICA]: So you're like the master of the jigsaw, everything coming towards Predator Free 2050.
[BRENT]: I'm not sure I'd use the word master. But yeah, we're sort of like the cat herder, trying to get everything in line. So--
[ERICA]: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we'll talk about cats later. So how did you get started in the field that you're in?
[BRENT]: That took a very long time. I'm a very old DOC person. I started 25 years ago in DOC, and started in mainland islands and Te Urewera, and then went to Stewart Island for 16 years.
But all that time, I've been managing predators and doing that sort of work. And I was in the Minister's office when Predator Free got started. And when this job became available, I sort of transitioned across and grabbed this, which was a great opportunity.
[ERICA]: What's Stewart Island like?
[BRENT]: Stewart Island is lovely--
[ERICA]: Is it?
[BRENT]:--one of my favourite places in the world.
[ERICA]: Is it? Do you have a favourite animal from down there?
[BRENT]:Well, it's got lots of animals on there. But I do like the fact we brought kiwi back around the town a few years ago. And I've still got my house there.
And there's a kiwi that lives in my backyard and goes under our house every now and again. So I can lie in bed and listening to kiwi snuffling under the house, which is very cool. So that particular kiwi is my favourite animal.
[ERICA]: That's a good response, actually. So did you study conservation?
[BRENT]:I did actually, Erica. I went to Waikato University and did a Masters in Behavioural Ecology. And I ended up studying kaka, so in the Whirinaki Forest, which got me into conservation in a general sense. But I was almost wearing a white lab coat and going into the lab.
[ERICA]: Oh, really?
[BRENT]: I was in a program that was looking at possums, and whether we could disrupt the chemical trail between the uterus and the pouch in possums, because they're marsupials. The babies come out as about the size of baked beans. And they make their way up to the pouch to finish their growth.
And if we could disrupt that chemical trail, then it would—then they wouldn't be able to make it. And it was sort of a contraceptive for possums. But just about two months before I put the white lab coat on to start my career as a lab technician, the funding got pulled.
And the whole project fell over. So I was the only student left standing when they offered me this opportunity to look at kaka in the Whirinaki Forest. And I've never looked back. I'm so pleased I don't wear a white lab coat these days.
[ERICA]: So why is Predator Free important for Aotearoa?
[BRENT]: Predator Free is immensely important. I've spent over 20 years of my career implementing the last biodiversity strategy we had. And we failed. We failed.
The biodiversity strategy had a simple goal of reversing the decline-- not about thriving, not about doing really well, just stopping things going down the gurgler.
And we couldn't even achieve that over 20 years. And one of the main reasons for that is this predation of all these introduced predators that have come here, like possums and stoats and ferrets and weasels and the three species of rat.
And they're just eating our wildlife out from underneath us. And unless we manage to step change our approach and do something completely different, we're going to lose these things over time. So this is the sort of action you—
Predator Free is the sort of action you need to do to deliver thriving wildlife.
[ERICA]: You've talked about the treadmill of temporary control. Is that what we were doing in the biodiversity strategy, that kind of BAU approach, whereas now it's a completely different program?
[BRENT]: Yeah, we still do that. And that's really important, until we develop the skills and the techniques and the technology to achieve eradication and sustain it at scale. But that has been our approach in the past, is a treadmill of suppression.
So we knock things down. And we let them come back up a bit, and then knock them down again. Or we really intensively trap and control continuously. But you're continuously pumping effort into a place. And the pest animals respond to that, as well.
So they learn. They get better. So it just gets harder and harder and harder across time. It's not a long-term option for us, really. The opportunity ahead of us is to really just take that to another level.
And yet, you only have to go to any of our offshore islands where we have achieved eradication to see what it should look like, what it should feel like, what it should sound like. And then, you know, you come back going actually, this is what we need to do--
[ERICA]: And it's worth it.
[BRENT]: --across New Zealand, yeah.
[ERICA]: Or even where we haven't yet eradicated, but something like Rakiura where you've got a kiwi snuffling under your house.
[BRENT]: Yeah, we do. But unfortunately, Rakiura is stuffed as well. I'm so sad when I go down there. Around the town is good. The offshore islands are really good.
Where we do-- anywhere in New Zealand where we do predator control generally has got good wildlife, good lots of birds. But I remember going across to Doughboy Bay on Stewart Island-- this is when I really understood we needed to do something different here, because I spent two days at Doughboy Bay in one of the remote parts of Stewart Island.
And I only heard one tui over two days. And that was not-- and I wasn't just counting tui. I mean, of all the native birds I could hear, that was all I ran into in the bush in two days. And it was just-- they're just gone.
[ERICA]: That is devastating. So you've got a desk job now. But prior to that, you've got 25 years field experience on islands, boats, and pretty much everything in between. Tell me about one of your weirdest days at work.
[BRENT]: It's really hard to pick one.
[ERICA]: I bet.
[BRENT]: I've had lots of weird days at work. I was going down the Sub-Antarctics a few years ago. And we were taking Nick Smith and Gareth Morgan and Sam Morgan. And we were on the Navy trip.
And we hit this massive storm, where it was sort of like 25 meter seas. And they were breaking over the front of the boat. And the boat couldn't turn around, because it was-- because the wind and the waves were too big for it.
So we were just tracking slowly towards Tasmania while we waited. And in the middle of all that, most of the crew were sick. So they only had a skeleton crew on, the Navy. And then, the fire alarm went off.
And they thought there was a fire on board. And all the crew-- so the crew that they could muster-- were going in there. What had happened was one of the extinguishers had been smashed across the room, and gone off inside the area it was. But all the alarms went off in there and they're doing that.
And in the midst of all this chaos, I went up to the bridge and was sitting on the bridge. In the midst of all this chaos of humans in the Southern Ocean barely surviving, this pod of dolphins swam past us, just happy as anything in their element. And I just-- and I suddenly sat there realizing that, oh my gosh, this is-- we don't belong here.
[ERICA]: Just that we're doing it wrong.
[BRENT]: Yeah, we're not doing it right.
[ERICA]: Oh, that's pretty cool. Tell me another one.
[BRENT]: I'll tell you another one. So actually, when you encounter wildlife, creates some really weird days at work for you. And I remember once, I was the Duty Officer on Stewart island.
And I got a call from the policeman late that night that there was a sea lion on the road. And so, I had to go out and help him get the sea lion off the road.
And it's Stewart island. There's not much traffic. So it's not a big issue. But it's a black sea lion on a section of road with no lights or anything on it. So it's just this big, dark lump in the middle of the road. So it could have caused a bit of damage.
[BRENT]: So I got round there and hopped out of the truck. And you know, I took my brother with me. So my brother and the policeman were standing there.
And it was quite a big sea lion. It was one of those big males, about 300, 350 kilos.
[ERICA]: Not scary at all.
[BRENT]: Not scary at all. And so, I said, I asked who wanted to help me, but they weren't that keen. So they both sat in the truck, watching. And I got-- to move sea lions, you got to know what sea lions do.
Like, they're quite big. But they don't eat you. They're not-- you're not their prey. So I took a stick. And I was just tapping him on the side with a stick to try to be annoying enough that he would move. Just a little tap. It didn't hurt him.
So eventually, he got really tired of me. And he jumped up. And he's about-- probably about my height and when he raised himself up and charged me. But they always stop when they get to you.
So I was just standing there. And he stopped about half a meter short and flopped down again. So I just kept tapping him again. And it really winded him up.
And eventually, after a few sort of barks and carrying on, he huffed across the road, because he was just-- couldn't rest there, because I wasn't going to let him rest. So he was completely, completely sick of me. So I got him off the road, back on the beach, and left him in peace, which is great.
And then, I turned around and went back to the truck. And the policeman and my brother are both sitting there, wide-eyed, jaws slack. [LAUGHTER] Well, how on earth did you do that?
[ERICA]: Oh, my gosh. How do you know that it's not going to-- that it's going to stop?
[BRENT]: Oh, it's--
[ERICA]: Just from past experience?
[BRENT]: Just experience, just experience.
[ERICA]: That must be quite a first experience--
[BRENT]: Yeah, no, well it's--
[ERICA]: --when you say it's going to stop, ‘I’m being told it's going to stop!’
[BRENT]: There's thousands of sea lions on the Sub-Antarctic. And on Stewart Island, there's a new population down in Pegasus, as well. So that was one of the things I learned from one of my colleagues when we were sea lion monitoring down there.
You could just walk, you know, it was-- every time they-- the worst thing people do is they run away from them. Because then, it becomes like a game. And the sea lions chase them. But if you just stay still, they'll stop before they get to you. That's all bluff and buster.
[ERICA]: If you come across a sea lion, please don't prod it with a stick like Brent Beavan did, in order to get it off the road. But stand 20 meters away from it an d enjoy it from a distance.
I've also heard another not safe for home kind of story, that you stood on a sea lion once.
[ERICA]: Tell me about that.
[BRENT]: Absolutely. And you're right. Kids, please don't do this at home. This is a sort of-- this is-- I'm a professional. And I know what I'm doing around sea lions. But--
[ERICA]: With a stick.
[BRENT]: --but I had to purposely annoy it. So it's better people stand back and give them space, and let them lead their own lives. But I was on Campbell Island one day. And there's lots of sea lions on Campbell Island, you know. It's just there's lots.
But there's also really high tussock. And we had transferred teal down to Campbell Island. And I was moving them. We were taking the box and carrying them over to Northwest Bay, to release them over at that Bay.
And you get to the top looking down on Northwest, and it's beautiful. There's this big tussock slope rolling down. And everyone else is really scared of sea lions. So they're all behind me.
And they we're all heading through the tussock. So you're sort of slowly making your way down. But to give you a bit more of a concept, the tussock came up to about my chin.
So we're walking through like that, trying to see what happens. And I sort of felt the ground change underneath me. And I got two steps on this quite squishy bit of ground when it moved. And I suddenly realized that I'd just walked up the back of a sea lion.
And thankfully, it was facing away from me. And it got as big a fright as I did, because it took off at 100 miles an hour. And I found a new reverse gear and got backwards really, really quickly. And so thankfully, because we were both really scared, it was fine.
[ERICA]: So not one, but two steps on a sea lion.
[BRENT]: Two steps onto a sea lion, yeah. Well, yeah, what do you do?
[ERICA]: Prodding with sticks and standing on sea lions aside, is there another time, perhaps, that everything hasn't gone quite right in the field?
[BRENT]: Yeah, I mean, that's part and parcel of the work is things go wrong occasionally. I do try.
[ERICA]: And that's not a user issue?
[BRENT]: We do try not to have things go wrong, because if you're in a really remote spot they can be a bit fatal. So we're very, very careful in how we go about things. I mean, I've got a positive story of things going to-- that didn't quite go right that I'll—
[BRENT]: --tell you. I was catching--
[ERICA]: Because right now, you're sounding like a cowboy.
[BRENT]: I was out on Breaksea Island, catching mohua for transfer to Whenua Hou a few years ago, which was quite a cool job. Breaksea was one of the-- it was the first island they made predator free in New Zealand, the first big island. They did Maria Island, which is a small one.
But this was the first structured, baited, ground-baited approach to doing it. And it's really steep. It's quite an amazing island in Fiordland. And the wildlife on it is phenomenal.
So we can go in and actually catch some of the birds, and take them off to repopulate other spots there's so many. So I was catching mohua-- or yellowhead-- on the island. And we would struggle for days. And I was on top of the island.
And we'd only had 15 birds. And the helicopter was coming. And you normally want 30 to 50 to try to start a population. And we-- I was on the top of the island. And we're 15 minutes to go till we called it quits and the helicopter arrived.
I caught 30 mohua in one go. So they're in the net and they're everywhere. The only problem was, I didn't expect that. And there was only me. And I didn't have enough catch bags.
So I filled up all my catch bags. So we put the birds into little bags that protect them. And that way, we can transport them and carry them down and put them in a box to move them to another island.
So I took my socks off. And I stuffed some mohua in my socks. And I tied my sleeves up on my raincoat and put mohua in the raincoat. And every-- off every little pocket and everything I could do, I had filled with mohua.
And then, I had to line them in my pack and tie them around the pack and hold them close. But you can't hold 30 catch bags by yourself. So I had everything lined up. And then, I-- and the radio wasn't working, because the island is so steep you couldn't connect across it.
So the helicopter had come in by this point. And they were all down there. And I'm desperately stuffing all these birds in bags and folding them up--
[ERICA]: Could they not help?
[BRENT]: --shooing other birds away. Go away. And I got them all stuffed in. And then, I had to go down. It's a very steep track. It's like 45 degrees. So I have these 30 birds in pockets and bags and socks.
[ERICA]: Don't fall over.
[BRENT]: And I got down the bottom, just got the radio connection time to make them hold. And they held the chopper. We got them all out, banded them, put them in the boxes.
And you know, it was about 30, 40 minutes later than anticipated. But then, we got them all away. And we had a good population.
[ERICA]: And they successfully started a new population?
[BRENT]: We successfully started a new population on Whenua Hou. So Whenua Hou or Codfish Islands, where all the kakapo are? Another site where-- when you get rid of predators, you can have kakapo and more wildlife and things like that.
[ERICA]: Harder to stuff in your jacket.
[BRENT]: They are a bit harder to stuff in your jacket, but I'd give it a go.
[ERICA]: Wow. I'm sure you will. So you've had many conservation successes throughout your experience, 25 years. But can you think of one that tops the heap? What's your greatest conservation story?
[BRENT]: Oh, that's a tough question.
[ERICA]: It is a tough question.
[BRENT]: It is a tough question. In a bizarre way, the greatest conservation success I had was leaving Stewart Island. And it sounds a bit odd, but I had been on Stewart Island for 16 years, managing the wildlife and nature down there.
And I was the-- I had been a huge advocate for a Predator Free Stewart Island. We'd been working on that for all those 16 years. And what I'd failed to recognize was that it had-- I'd got too tied into it. And I had the ownership of it.
And so, therefore, the community didn't. And when I left, I'd say it was simply because, you know, the department got restructured and roles changed. And I got another role based out of Invercagill managing Stewart on the Sub-Antarctic.
When I left and was stepped out of that place, the community took it over. And the ownership shifted away from me to the community. And now, this year, it's done so well that we funded a million dollars into Stewart Island to do the operational planning for how will we go about achieving Predator Free Rakiura. So it's sometimes, you know, the thing that's put in front of you doesn't look like success at the time. But the way it pans out is actually really positive.
[ERICA]: That's fantastic. So it's like you passed the charger over. You're not just in there on the white charger fixing everything. You've handed it to the community. And they get to do it.
[BRENT]: Yeah, and it's a real lesson for me in how we approach Predator Free. Because it has to be owned by the communities and places. And they have to be driving what they want to see happen there. So we've built that right into the DNA of our strategy, and how we approach it, and how we want to do things.
[BRENT]: Right, yeah because it can't just be-- DOC can't just fix it. It has to take everyone. That's going to take everyone.
I think that's a real story of the change in conservation over the last 20 years, from when I started. When I started in conservation, it was very much DOC. You know, we're the experts. We do this work. And this is what we want to do.
But there's a limit to how much conservation you can do in that place. And over those 20 years I've been playing in this field, the change of ownership to the communities, and Iwi and whānau and hāpu and everyone being involved, is just really growing the amount of work that can be done. And I sit in the space where we got to get communities involved to get that buy-in and that understanding and that commitment, to try and to protect this special wildlife that's ours to look after.
[ERICA]: So do you think-- I mean, New Zealand does have this social capital around Predator Free. Why do you think that is?
[BRENT]: I think it's because it's really getable. Like, I work--
[ERICA]:Understandable or achievable?
[BRENT]: Understandable. All right, it's both. But it's the first time I've had a thing I'm working towards, within conservation, that people immediately understand. When I used to talk about ecosystem services, you had to take 10 minutes explaining it to everyone.
And it was just so challenging. And now, you're in this place where I go oh, we're doing Predator Free. And people go oh, I get that. And they also get what they can do to contribute towards it.
And it's really quite intuitive and easy. And people get on board. And it's such a good goal.
[ERICA]: It is such a good goal. Was there a moment that you saw that solidify in front of you, in terms of the community taking over?
[BRENT]: Yeah, there was a couple on-- there was a couple of moments on Stewart Island that particularly stand out in my mind. One was, I talked about kiwi, returning kiwi to the township. And it took a bit of time for people to grasp what was happening there.
And we used to have lots of roaming dogs. So it was a real struggle to deal with, because roaming dogs just take out all your kiwi. And as soon as we sort of got that under control a little bit and put kiwi in place, the community forced the dog ownership issue out.
Because they want a kiwi in their backyards, not someone else's dog. So the social pressure suddenly changed completely and re-framed how that operated. And I was down there last year. And I went into the pub and ran into a whole lot of people I knew from the time I lived there.
And they're all telling me kiwi stories. They're all going, oh, I saw four kiwi in my backyard the other day. I'd got sick of it. I wanted to talk about something else. But everyone was coming up to me talking about kiwi.
And I think the other one I-- the other example I saw, which was really strong on Stewart Island, was when we had rats come back onto Ulva Island. Ulva Island’s a Predator Free island and … it's really accessible. If you're going to Stewart Island, you should get Ulva Island. Beautiful spot and full of wildlife. And we got rats back on. And we've got a population of rats.
And we had to get-- well, we had to do another eradication to try to get rid of them. And it was the shift from the community being quite indifferent about Ulva 20, 30 years ago-- and Ulva's a special place to go, but eh-- to actually driving in behind and really advocating to get-- because they valued that wildlife. They valued those animals as part of their upbringing, where they went, what they wanted, and what was special to them.
But it was also, actually, a key part of the economy on Stewart Island, because so many of the guided walks had grown, the number of people, the water taxis. So they really swung in behind and had that sense. There was the ownership of the place that I really recognized, at that point. And I think that was the swing away from it being a DOC island to it actually-- this is our island, as a community.
[ERICA]: And they knew what the value was, because they'd seen what they could have there.
[BRENT]: Yeah, they'd seen it, breathed it, ate it, heard it, smelled it. You know, it's a very tangible thing.
[ERICA]: Is rat incursion likely to happen again? Is it close to Stewart Island?
[BRENT]: Yeah, it's within swimming distance. So a Norway rat can swim over a kilometer. So they're cunning little critters. They're a worthy challenge.
But the Island has now got a much better infrastructure on it. So they've got traps everywhere on that island. They try to capture animals as they come on.
But over time, it will get better and better. The investment we've got on Predator Free is starting to bring out new tools, new technology, new ways of detecting things, new ways of making sure you get rid of them really quickly. So this should become easier. And as we get onto the mainland sites-- and if we do the whole of Stewart Island, then invading rats onto Ulva won't be an issue.
[ERICA]: Something that's hard for us to think about is the seriousness of the threat to most species. But we are actually in dire straits. We've got 43 species of birds that have gone extinct in the last 800 years.
The reality is that a lot of them are at some kind of risk. You've talked about the treadmill of temporary control and that BAU approach not being what we can do anymore. What places or species are you really worried about at the moment?
[BRENT]: I'm worried about them all. That's part of the problem. All of our species evolved in the absence of most mammals. The only mammals that were on New Zealand were seals, sea lions, and bats.
So the thing about mammals is they hunt with scent. So they smell things. You know, watch dogs or cats hunting. Sight and scent are really important. So they can track things, and track them down and eat them.
When you've evolved with your only predator being an eagle or a morepork or something like that, then you freeze because they're hunting by sight. So you stay still and you camouflage. So you look at our native animals, and most of them-- you know, the kiwi, the kakapo-- they're really well-camouflaged.
And they fit into their environment. And they're almost invisible. Now, unfortunately, if that's your strategy and you freeze and an animal's hunting by scent and smell, then they just got no defence.
[ERICA]: You're making it easier for them.
[ERICA]: Here I am.
[BRENT]: They are. And the poor things just-- they're not evolved for that. And so, they don't stand a chance. It's not-- the only equilibrium that ever is going to get reached in New Zealand, if we just step back, is we will lose those things. And we will get lots of rats and possums and things like that.
So we need to take action. Otherwise, those things are going to die out. So can I pick a species? No. No, they're all valuable. They're all part of our identity.
They're all ours, as New Zealanders. And they're ours to look after. And if we lose them, they're gone. They're gone from the world.
[ERICA]: And even if you lose one, it can have such a devastating effect. Right?
[BRENT]: Yeah, well for lots of them, we just don't know what they-- we don't know what that'll be. We don't-- we don't know what its potential is in the future. But also, you lose its role within the forest and/or within the wherever it lives. And that will have impacts and it will have flow on.
But it's not just extinction. You know, we often think about losing, you know, losing those animals. And that's the end of it. But it's the loss of that genetic diversity that's really bad, as well.
So you imagine, when we used to have millions and millions of kaka all over New Zealand, you know, we used to have yellow ones and white ones and red ones. And you know, there's this massive amount of genetic diversity. And then, we've narrowed it down to quite a few. So we've lost a lot of their resilience, so their ability to respond to things like climate change or diseases that come into the country
Their ability to respond is really limited because of that loss of genetic diversity. So it's not about totally gone. It's even getting to low numbers is really bad.
[ERICA]: OK so, that genetic bottleneck creates just one extra thing, that cumulative effect of say climate change, say something that can just have a devastating effect.
[BRENT]: Yeah, well, imagine a population of humans, you imagine everyone you know. And you say, actually, we've got some horrible thing happened to the planet. And there's only going to be five of us left to repopulate the planet.
Well, you're going to get quite a different group of people evolving out of that. And their ability to respond to things is going to be really different. So that's what happens with those birds and geckos and lizards and everything else, as well.
And you get down low numbers, then their resilience is really low. The black robins are great example. You know, it got down to what was it, seven birds at some point. And you know, one female basically repopulated everything by herself.
But they're actually-- their breeding is really slow now. Compared to other birds, they produce very few offspring. And that's just an offspring of-- or an offshoot of having very low genetic diversity.
[ERICA]: Is that comparatively to how they used to be? So they used to breed what, a clutch every year or something and now, at least?
[BRENT]: New Zealand robins on the mainland can produce three clutches. And they can each have three or four chicks in them. So these guys are producing a very small number of individuals.
The same with saddleback, tīeke. They were-- the South Island tieke were on-- it got down to 30 individuals on one island. And we did some genetic work on those birds, oh about 10 years ago now. They're almost identical.
You know, we got thousands of them now on lots of offshore islands again, Predator Free islands. You can have tieke on them. But you can't have them anywhere where there's rats or stoats or possums. They just can't survive.
But these birds, they're almost identical. Now, if you get a if you get a disease or you get a drought or you get some other factor coming in like climate change that will cause variations in their habitat, their ability to survive is really limited because they just don't have the diversity.
[ERICA]: Yeah, they can't adapt as easily.
[BRENT]: They can't adapt as easily.
[ERICA]: So our predator problem is largely a product of colonization. Right? It's not all predators came with European settlers, but ship rats and mustelids did. What can we learn from that?
Well, that's a provocative statement, I think. But you're right. It is colonization when we – it has caused this problem. And it was the mindset at the time, as well, that you know, you just brought a bit of old England across to settle it into the new country.
[ERICA]: The British of the South, that's what they wanted to create.
[BRENT]: Yeah, that was the-- and that's, you know, you can't look back and blame them. They were just-- that was the mindset of the day. And they were trying to set up something that they were comfortable with. But gosh, the impact on the country has been phenomenal. And what do we end up with? Stoats and ferrets to control rabbits.
[ERICA]: It's like a lady eating the fly kind of mentality.
[BRENT]: And it also flies in the face of ecology, because it's not predators that control prey. That's funnily enough, it's prey that controls predators. And you've got to think of it like lions on the Serengeti. As the lion numbers are dictated by the number of zebras—
[ERICA]: Supply and demand.
[BRENT]: --the zebra numbers aren't dictated by the number of lions. So yeah, it's food supply that dictates animal numbers. And that's where we go. So that's a bit of an aside. So it's always prey that dictates predator numbers.
So we've got all these species as a byproduct of colonization, and the use mentality that went with that. So possums were brought over for fur. You know, so we put the-- it didn't really matter about the impact, because there was an industry we could set up and run.
And I think we're probably on the cusp of moving to quite a different sort of mentality. It's quite a how do humans-- it's humans recognizing themselves as part of nature, and intrinsically linked to the systems of the Earth that are supported by nature.
[ERICA]: And that kind of reciprocity--
[ERICA]: --of the land.
[BRENT]: Well, I think we see that with the climate change issues, as well. You know, we're causing them. And that's impacting on the planet, and then impacting back on us as people. So we've got to get into this very new space we think of ourselves as part of the system, and we have a much more aligned with the Māori world view that we're part of it and we have to look after it, because it is our life supporting system.
[ERICA]: And you've talked about kaitiakitanga in terms of .. we need the science and innovation for Predator Free. But you're also looking back over centuries and the customary values. Is that right?
[BRENT]: Yeah, we're trying to really build that into how we're working. And I do love the idea in Māoridom that we're related to everything, that we whakapapa to not just the land but the creatures, you know, that are our whānau. And that relates to science, because if you follow everything back genetically, we all do link at some point.
So there is some science sitting behind that concept and that idea. But if you think of that idea that gosh, these are our brothers and sisters and things we're related to, then maybe it just gives you a bit more of a drive to get connected to that.
[ERICA]: We'll take better care of it.
[ERICA]: as well.
[BRENT]: And I do like, you know, that mātauranga, it's the knowledge that's been an environment for 600 years. So it can tell us about patterns of behaviour or things that have been observed. Or gosh, when you're setting out on a journey like Predator Free, you want to grab as much knowledge and understanding as you can. And I think it would be silly to ignore offerings from anyone, at this point in time.
[ERICA]: So is Predator Free 2050 possible? Can we do it?
[BRENT]: Of course, we can. Of course, we can. We've mapped it all out. So the strategy breaks us into sort of a number of functional pathways. And we've logic mapped them to death. We know what we have to do now to set us up to be in the place to deliver Predator Free in 2050. And it's just really, it's that technical issues. And we can solve those.
They're not a challenge. –Oh, well, they are a challenge. But they're easy to-- you know, you get engineers involved. You get scientists involved. And if you get the focus on it, you can really shift our technology into the right place.
The bit that is the harder challenge is the people.
So it’s the social issues, and the understanding, and getting people on board, and understanding that we might have to go onto their land or change their lifestyle slightly. So that's always-- there's always a social element that is much more challenging than the technical element.
But if the people buy into it, we can solve those technical issues. There's no problems about that.
[ERICA]: Since Brent had so many great stories, we’ve cut his interview into a bumper two part episode.
In part two we’ll be talking about innovations such as AI and smart devices, sensor pads, infra-red cameras and long-life lures. Plus, we’re taking on the tougher topics: 1080, cats and how we keep our staff safe.
Part two will be out next month.
Subscribe so you don’t miss it.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
[NORTHERN BROWN KIWI CALL]
Brent is on the show to tell us everything we need to know about Predator Free 2050 – in fact, he told us so much, we’ve split his interview into two. This is part one. Brent is an expert on predator control and has decades of hands-on field experience. He's herded sea lions, been hounded by kiwi, and caught mohua in his socks. In the world of threatened species conservation, you name it and Brent has done it. Listen and learn.
- The bird sound in this episode is the Northern brown kiwi
- The music used is Let’s Get Down to Business by Cast of Characters
- Brent’s excellent blog series about Predator Free is available on the Conservation Blog
Te reo Māori translation:
Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science. (Hi! My name is Erica Wilkinson and this is a podcast about Sounds of Science).
Kia ora, Erica, ko Brent Beaven ahau (Hi Erica, I’m Brent Beaven).
Episode 12: Marine Magic
Transcript for episode 12
[ERICA]: Kia ora, I’m Erica Wilkinson, New Zealand’s Acting Threatened Species Ambassador. And this is the DOC Sounds of Science Podcast.
Every episode we talk about the work being done behind the scenes by DOC's technical experts, scientists, rangers, and the experts in between.
Kia ora, I'm Erica Wilkinson, New Zealand's acting Threatened Species Ambassador, and this is the DOC "Sounds of Science" podcast.
Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science.
Today's guest has over 30 years experience working with and studying marine mammals. Welcome, Anton. It's great to have you on the show.
Kia ora Erica. Ko Anton tōku ingoa.
Hi Erica, My name is Anton, and I work for the Department of Conservation.
Kia ora And tell me a bit about your role at DOC.
So I'm the science advisor in the Marine species team, assigned to looking after Māui and Hector's dolphins.
Fantastic. And how are the Māui and Hector's dolphins at the moment?
Well, it's a little bit variable. We've got one of the most critically endangered small dolphins on the planet in the form of the subspecies, which is Māui Dolphins. And we have Hector's dolphin, which although on the surface may look to be thriving at some 15,000 animals, is split up into a whole bunch of little subpopulations which are doing better or worse, depending on where they are.
Really? And you were just telling me that you're working on an abundance survey.
We will be next year in the second year of our genetic mark recapture abundance survey to create an estimate on the population of Māui Dolphins. So this has been running every five years, and each survey, because it's a marked recapture-- that is, we capture information in the first year and compare that to information in the second year to be able to derive an estimate-- and so they have two years every five years. So we're now third lot-- third round of those. Yeah.
If that makes sense. And that means that by the end of next year, we will have a new estimate for the Māui dolphin population. Currently, we're working on the basis of there being 63 Māui dolphins over the age of one, give or take.
Right. Wow. And what brought you there? How did you get started in this field?
So I was interested in whales and dolphins from-- I'm going to say the age of two. I have a memorable event when crossing the Cook Strait on the Interislander Ferry, or as it was then, the Picton Ferry, known as the Aramoana. So I was crossing on the Aramoana with my mum-- it was a very rough crossing-- and I was a bit green around the gills.
And my mum took me outside to get a breath of fresh air, and there in the waves were a bunch of dolphins leaping about as if bad weather didn't mean anything to them. And so I was pretty much hooked from that point on. And on television, of course, there was Jacques Cousteau, who was an inspiration to so many of us.
And we all had our favourite phrases, and so I imagined that at some point in my life that I would be--
With the Red Hat.
I'm here with my red beanie. In fact, I'm working on a-- I'm also an Illustrator, so I'm working on a little story called "Shark Cousteau," which is about a great white shark who wears a little red beanie and wears glasses after--
Oh, I love it.
--their childhood hero. So those are things that I want to do is to come up with silly things to convey stories about our natural world, and that's part of who I am.
That's fantastic. I can't wait to read the-- or to see the book when it comes out.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So there was a list of things that you wanted to be when you grew up?
I had a list when I was about four of things that I wanted to be. Certainly the top four was to be a whale scientist, to be a cartoonist, to be a magician, and to be a chef. And the chef bit is the only one I haven't really done-- well, got paid to do.
I feel like, when I grew up, I wanted to do either musical theatre or working with animals, and I've somehow found something that kind of lets me do them both, but DOC ask me not to sing all the time. But what I was thinking was you've got very separate paths, like magician and working at DOC. Can you tell me about your other career?
Well, I think that all of these things knit together in some ways, right? Because there are ways for us to interact with our world and interact with other people. They all involve storytelling and inquiry. We investigate our world in all sorts of different ways. And so learning about magic and how people react and respond to magic is also an inquiry into their psychology and how they interface with their perceptions of reality.
In a similar way, when we look at the Marine environment, for example, people don't have a direct understanding of how whales work or their place in the Marine environment. So we're in a business of having to interpret that for them and to inquire of that so that we can provide information in a way that not only makes sense, but that encourages them to care about them. Yeah. And ultimately, that's a big chunk of what we have to do is to-- how to get people to care.
And that brings me back, probably, to one of my greatest influences as a little kid was going along to I think I was three. We went to the Muritai School fair, and in the Muritai School hall they showed a film of The Lorax. And that pretty much entrenched in me, unless someone cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to change. It's not.
There's something tantalizing and magical about working with animals that you almost never see, right? So we have the perception of whales, but we also have-- and dolphins, right? Dolphins are small-toothed whales, just in case you get-- you stumble over that kind of little taxonomic problem.
So we engage with these things. We try and understand them and interpret how they live in the ocean so that we can do something about protecting them, but we are having to infer a lot from pretty scant little pieces of information. So much of what we know is just gleaned from a dead animal washed up on a beach. I mean, I had high and mighty ideals of being on the front of a boat, wearing a red beanie, and ta-da, there are the whales and--
--that's what it was all going to be about. But my real love for whales developed more so when I started working at the National Museum when I was 18.
Mm-hmm. So you must have some sort of magic meets DOC kind of stories. Do they do they ever--
I guess I have magic meets conservation stories, right? And magic meets whale stories. I have a colleague at MPI who loves Bayesian statistics, and I perform every week at the Green Man Pub. And so they came along to see me perform, and I'm no Bayesian statistician. And this character loves all that detail and loves how all that works, and for me that's kind of magical.
But anyway, at the pub, there I get to perform magic for him. And it was one of those joys of being able to, at the end of the day. So he's going, how is that even possible?
He's like, it's just maths. It's just maths. Which, of course, it wasn't, but that we don't need to tell him that.
But it's magic, obviously.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's right.
But the idea that you could-- we could play that little game was--
That you can have that interactive.
--was kind of pleasing.
And you must have a million stories about your oddest things that you've had to do.
Oh, yeah. So over the years, I've collected a number of whale skeletons for the museum. And that's brought me into some pretty unusual situations, not least of all dealing with rotting carcasses, right? It's not everybody's cup of tea. I'd never say it should be anybody's cup of tea, quite frankly.
But memorably my first sperm whale that we-- that I cut up with Ramari Stewart. We were down on the West Coast of at Hector, on the West Coast of the South Island. Ultimately, we never got that specimen for the museum, so there's a whole other story.
But we had spent-- we arrived-- it was one of those things where we're being told, oh, yes. There's accommodation on site, which turned out to be a tent with no ground sheet on a beach. So we didn't have a lot of facilities going for us.
But anyway, we were into cutting up this whale with the tools that we had. This was-- for Ramari and myself, this was our first whale, our first sperm whale that we'd ever cut up. And so we were-- we had set with the challenge, first of all, of removing the jawbone.
Now there's a lot of public attention when there is a jawbone. A sperm whale, particularly a large male-- this was a 15.3 metre male sperm whale, and they have large teeth. And so when things have large teeth, they attract a lot of attention.
Anyway, it took us the best part of a day to remove that jaw with the knowledge we had at the time. Now with some wonderful other DOC staff and things, I think the record is four minutes for removing a jawbone.
I hope there's a competition for that.
I seriously hope there's not. I think people just need to be really cautious about what they do. It's more about doing it right than doing it quick.
But the-- but anyway, it took us-- by the end of it, we were pretty exhausted. It was what we call a dry whale. That's where all the blubber-- a lot of the oil has gone from it. It's very fibrous, just really a lot of connective tissue, so it's quite hard to cut through.
And anyway, the jaw had gone and so had most of the crowds. But by the morning of day two we faced the enormously bloated beast on the beach. And we knew that if we were going to progress anything at all, we would have to essentially off gas the animal. That is, that we would have to cut along the belly of the beast and take it as it comes.
Well, the joy of this is that there was a local videographer who set up his tripod downwind from where we were and was filming the whole event. So somewhere out there, there is video of this. But Ramari and I were cutting along the belly of the beast and those fibers are tearing and snapping and-- [CLICKING NOISES] --and little farty noises are coming out as this-- and we can feel it.
It's going to go. It's going to go. And Ramari and I looked at each other and went, yeah, she's going to blow.
We nip it and run, right? So we nicked the thing and took off, and it erupted. It was just an audible boom as the animal exploded, then slowly drifted downwind towards where the videographer was, who then grabbed his mouth with one hand and his tripod with the other and disappeared into the dunes.
And we never saw him again. We heard him for a little while, but we didn't see him again. But anyway that was-- that's learning on the job.
So you've been a bit of time in the sub-Antarctics. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well, my first experience of going to the sub-Antarctics was in 1995. We were all gunning to go, and we went down on this German tour boat. So it's one of these nice associations with tourism that they will take DOC staff or scientists down to these--
--these remote places, right? And in exchange, I guess the people get to go ashore or to have a look around.
So we get on board, and it's just exquisite. You mentioned, we sit down for dinner the first night and there's cutlery as far as your arms could reach on either side and everything was just amazing. And the next morning at breakfast there were pastries, and it was about as high-end as I had ever experienced in my life.
And coming from the tent on the beach, as well, you know?
It's a very--
So there's real contrasts in this job. You got to take them as they come.
Well, talk about taking it as they come. The next night we got stuck in a storm south of-- so we left from Lyttleton, and we-- the next night we were South of Stewart Island, and we got caught in a horrendous storm.
I think it was like Beaufort 12 for 12 hours or something, 75 knot winds, 14 metre seas, And we were rolling at over 50 degrees, so it was pretty dreadful. And a real experience for me. I'd never really been out on the-- out to sea at all. And anyway, my cabin mate, Rob Matlin who sadly no longer with us, gave me the nickname the barkingseal after that experience.
The interesting thing is we had a-- there was a Danish captain. And every time we were going to roll-- he was obviously aware that this was going to happen-- he would come over the intercom and go, hold on. Hold on. And so all through the night we heard this.
And not a single thing was bolted down in the cabin, so the beds were sliding and everything. We were holding on to-- I was holding on to a corner of the mattress. Meanwhile, Rob Matland was trying to keep me cheerful by zipping backwards and forwards across the floor on his bum, just sliding backwards and forth.
But halfway through the night, because this is just treacherous, treacherous, we hear the Danish captain comes and goes, is there a dentist on board? And he goes, oh, no. And we had this vision of them sending out one of these workers out to finally paint one of the-- something on the outside of the boat or something.
But anyway, they're going down to Antarctica. Yes, we were being dropped off en route, but they're going down to Antarctica and someone's got smashed teeth. This is just too-- it was too hard.
But as a consequence of the storm, they decided they'd taken too much time and so they didn't drop us off at Enderby Island where we were supposed to be dropped off. So perhaps in a roundabout way with some good fortune, I was a castaway on Campbell Island.
Oh, my gosh.
So they dropped us off at Campbell island, which, thankfully, it was the last year there was a manned weather station at Campbell Island so we had somewhere to be. And a character called Gerry Clarke who had a little boat called the Totorore was-- had been with a little crew counting birds around the Auckland Islands. And he dropped his crew at Enderby, where we were supposed to be and soloed down to pick us up in what was-- I don't know-- 6 and 1/2 meter bilge-keeler yacht.
So it's a one time in my life seen this little boat come up the harbor, I thought, I don't want to go out. And I've just been out in an enormous boat, you know? But that's the thing. But that took us-- that took me to the subants for the first time.
Wow. What an experience. I'm desperate to know what the dental issue was, but I guess we never found out.
We don't know.
Yeah. Unresolved in my mind, too. Yeah.
So you work with dolphins a lot. You must deal with the toxoplasmosis situation. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah. So that's a really interesting and complex issue, right? Because here we have Hector's and Māui dolphins that are dying from a disease which really is only present in New Zealand because of cats.
Just boggles the mind.
Yeah, yeah. And so it's-- to go to somebody and say, the dolphins are dying because of cats, it's just too big a jump for people to--
They can't picture it.
--understand. But we need to understand that it's a parasite, right? Cats aren't going out killing dolphins. There's nothing willful about it on the part of the cat.
But the cats carry this parasite called toxoplasma gondii, and it only replicates sexually in the guts of cats. Cats are its definitive host--
--which means that in the cats, in the cat's gut, they reproduce by creating-- by making lots of oocysts, or eggs, if you like. Yeah. And these are distributed out into the wild through the cat's feces and from there into waterways, into soil, and ultimately into the marine environment where it can get into the dolphin. So that's an interesting pathway, right?
So do the eggs have to stay active in-- during that path?
So the amazing thing about this-- this has probably has been described as one of the most successful parasites on the planet.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It's not a good--
Yeah, yeah. You hope it would be the most fragile--
--most easily extinguished-- no. It's the most successful parasite on the planet. And these oocysts can persist and not just in fresh water and soil, but in saltwater in the marine environment for at least a year, maybe longer. And in soil for-- at least for a couple of years. So this is a-- it's a challenging, challenging thing for us to manage, because effectively it's a diffuse pollution problem.
I see. And so what's the answer? I mean, what do we need to tell cat owners or--
Firstly, let's face it. It's not the cats.
It's the parasite. So we're managing the parasite. But to manage the parasite, we have to consider how we manage cats. We have very limited ways in which we can affect change around cats. And there's obviously a lot of-- has been historic political--
She's a contentious issue.
--issues around cat management.
So there's a certain degree, if we know, that if you keep your cat inside, if you keep your cat contained and you feed it dry cat food, that it's not going out and eating pest populations of rats and mice or birds that can also carry it. Because toxoplasma can get into any warm-blooded creature, right?
And the thing that-- I mean, here's the joyous thing. For example, it does creates behavioral change in mice so that when they get the toxoplasma, it makes them less-- it makes them less risk averse and seek out cat urine smell. So mice then willfully wander in and look out for their predator.
Oh my gosh.
He's saying eat me, eat me. So we've got to-- there's a whole lot of different parts of this equation that somehow we need to bring together to manage. So if we say what can we do around managing cats? That's part of the issue. We have feral cat populations that homeowners can do very little about, but we have some responsibility for on--
On public conservation land.
--on public conservation land that-- that also the councils have some responsibility for, but also we have the issue of it getting into our waterways. So, for instance, if you're at home, you don't want to flush your cat's poos down the loo because that's an instant pathway into--
--into the water system, right? Well, it's not necessarily going to get to the dolphin, because there's all sorts of other things that we can possibly do along the way, like riparian planting and other things that could affect change. But the sad thing-- another challenge is that waste water-- so stormwater is one thing, but wastewater is another-- is that there is currently no mechanism that will kill the oocysts.
So all the things that we do to our sewage to-- whether it be UV light or chlorination, doesn't affect the oocysts one jot. So this is a really--
They're so powerful.
Oh, yeah. This is a really gnarly little thing.
And the point is that one cat-- we call it a shedding event so that-- and it's most likely that when they're a kitten, they get infected by the parasite. And then they-- it reproduces in the gut of the cat, and it releases all these oocysts into the environment. And a single cat can produce-- apparently, one cat was recorded producing a billion oocysts. It takes one oocyst to infect the dolphin.
But at the moment, one of our biggest problems is that we don't understand these pathways well enough or how to-- even it's challenging to measure the amount of toxo in a given body of water, right? So we know that there are things that we could do that are likely to have some benefit to the dolphins, but we can't expressly show that it will have a benefit.
For example, the population of Māui dolphin is so small that even if you did make-- you were making positive benefit, seeing it reflected in an increasing dolphin population would be hard to see over any small measurable period of time.
And they only breed every two to four years as well, don't they, or something like that. So it's a long game.
Yeah, yeah. This is-- it's a real long game thing. But we have to act quickly, because we need to reduce the risk.
OK. So it's more of a research side at the moment and needing to act quickly, but are there ways that we're getting better at marine mammal help? Are we-- is technology changing the game at all?
I look at what we've achieved in the recent TMP, and we're seeing massive extensions to our marine mammal sanctuaries and that--
That's a win. We've seen extensions to fisheries protections, although that's something governed by MPI. But in total that's quite something.
But if we look at making change and conservation, it's not about a silver bullet.
When I look at the toxo situation, there's not one thing that we just go, OK. It's very easy when you're outside of that-- outside of those processes to say, all you need to do is, right?
Like, all you need to do is get rid of the cats. All you need to do is stop fishing. All you need to do-- well, it's not an all you need to do answer. There's no silver bullet. It's--
And a lot of those things are little incremental gains that make up a whole. And so trying to work and pull together those collaborations, whether it be with other government agencies or with regional councils, but also with Iwi who have a really-- we have an absolute commitment to-- they're our treaty partners, and that's a big part of this conversation.
It's another thing to have those conversations. How do you make those things work? And that's a thing that we, as DOC, are working at. It's-- I'd hardly say it's a thing we've got right. But we have a-- not just an obligation, but a real desire--
Yeah. “To give effect” [to the principles of the Treaty].
--to bring effect. And do what we say we will do.
We've got a really strong rhetoric around relationship, but you have to relate to have relationship. And it's how you build that as a-- some of those things are hard won.
Yeah. And is that why you were removing the jaw and teeth from the whale to-- for Tangata Whenua?
Yeah. So in that case, we were in a situation where we were wanting to collect the entire skeleton for the museum. But those are particular taonga that have really strong value/meaning, partly through because of the nature of the bone itself. That—you know, I once had this conversation, yes, you might want to collect the jawbone of a whale, but why would you want to collect the other parts?
But I've come to understand that when it comes to somebody's rights or vision of what they want to do with their animal, that's not my call. Right? You can equally carve pumice as you can carve beautiful, dense whalebone found pretty much only in the jawbone or teeth of a sperm whale. So there's different ways to approach it, but it's always around that conversation.
But we've collected a lot of jaw bones over the years--
--to have those discussions and to-- we've had a lot of talks, sat around, had a lot of cups of tea with people to really talk through what these animals, what value they place in them. Not just as animals, but--
As taonga. As ancestors.
As ancestors! Yes.
So it's a very real thing. It's one thing to go and-- I remember having this great conversation. You have to think very carefully about whether you want to collect a whale, what your responsibilities are to that animal.
For instance, talking with Manawhenua Ki Mohua in Golden Bay and we wanted to collect a whale, and we agreed that we would collect the whole whale or none of it, initially. So if you imagine, it's quite simple to cut the head of a small whale and collect that as frozen freight. But if you were thinking, yeah, that's my grandmother.
Yeah, I don't want to do that.
No, I don't want to do that. I want to treat that with all the possible respect that I can.
And that we want to retain and build that relationship, so there's an ongoing relationship between the Iwi, the Tangata Whenua, and their taonga. And it's something that I carry with me all the time.
When I think of the ideas of Mana Taonga, what it meant for me in terms of building an ongoing relationship with Tangata Whenua. it really encapsulates this idea of-- that we talk about within DOC and elsewhere, obviously but whakawhanaungatanga. Which is that we are coming together. We are building an ongoing relationship to build for a greater purpose--
And building it together.
--and building it together.
We can't do it on our own.
Right? There's no way that DOC can achieve what it needs to do on its own. Those relationships are fundamental.
Absolutely. So over 80 years, the temperature has been rising. In alpine areas, rats and mice don't get limited by the same temperature restrictions and they are moving up, so that's bad news for our alpine birds. But what do we know about the potential impact of climate change on marine mammals?
This is an issue which we are grappling with and we will continue to grapple with for some time. We've seen these hot water events, if you like, with incursions of very warm water coming into an area, and that can change the distribution and upset the apple cart for all sorts of things. So that was notable off the coast of Taranaki with the blue whale research that was going on there.
And let's bear in mind that that's essentially the same habitat that Māui dolphin live in, right? But there are processes in the ocean, which are driven by ocean currents which are dependent on climate.
I mean if we look at the history of whales, it's tied in closely with changes in climate. But now we're getting it happening at a radical pace. The evolution of whales is tied to the opening up of the southern oceans, the changes in seasonal abundance of krill.
And at the moment we're seeing an expansion of sea ice, but we'll see a reduction in sea ice. That's what climate scientists tell us. And with that you'll see a reduction in areas where krill can breed, because they lay their eggs on the bottom of the sea ice. But they could really upset the balance for large migrating whales that are dependent on that tremendous seasonal abundance.
But it can also-- there may be changes to current systems and upwelling, areas and so loss of productivity in those areas, loss not just-- and not just temperature, but also ocean acidification where you may get changes in how prey develop, right? So soft bodied organisms, even squid that have these little things called statoliths that are seen to be altered by changes in temperature and chemistry. And that changes how they orient themselves in the water column, and that may impact on squid populations that enormous numbers of species are dependent on.
That we may see-- this idea that animals can just move to where it's-- marine mammals are big. They can move to wherever there's food. But they are going to try and be where it's viable for them to be, but that may also expose them to other risks.
The best thing we can do is try and do what we can to stop anthropogenic climate change. Our role, really, is to mitigate other impacts on their environment. The more we can reduce the risks from man-made activities on these animals, the better chance they have of being able to handle these sorts of events.
What's something about your work that you wish everyone knew? What can we, at home, do to help marine mammals?
If people could understand that it's a really complex job that we all have to, if we can contribute positively towards it. There's a lot of negativity that makes the job harder, to be fair. And I don't know what the-- quite how to resolve that, but I do know that it's quite different being inside government to being outside of it.
If there are carcasses that come ashore washed up on the beach, can we find out about them in enough time for them to be in a fresh enough state for us to be able to do necropsies and to really determine cause of death?
And as sad and as horrible as that may sound--
It's so necessary
--as I said before, it's one of the only opportunities we have to look at them.
So if there are animals dying and coming up on the beach, we need to be able to find them as quickly as we can. So when people are vigilant around their pieces of coastline, but also not just dead animals but also sightings. For example, on the East Coast of the North Island, we get sporadic sightings of Hector's dolphins.
For instance, DOC has an app, a sightings app, for Hector's and Māui's dolphins. And so you can use that--
And use it.
--and report. And when we get reports of these animals, that allows us to take other management decisions.
OK. And so I've got the app. I've downloaded it, and then what am I looking for?
Then you're looking for a little Mickey Mouse fin swimming past you, right? So Mickey Mouse-shaped dorsal fin. Mickey Mouse-- that's not quite right. Mickey Mouse-eared shaped dorsal fin.
Not the whole thing.
Not the whole animal. No, no. Not the whole mouse. That would be really odd. No.
But we tend to say that it's got a rounded dorsal fin, but I think lots of people look at a dolphin fin and go, it's rounded. But they are looking at just the leading edge.
Comparatively to a shark, I guess.
Yeah, yeah. But if we're talking about the whole shape of the dorsal fin, it's like a little Mickey Mouse ear.
Proper little round dorsal fin.
And that's both Māui and Hector's.
I found-- yeah, anyone would struggle to determine whether it's a Hector's or Māui's dolphin based on looking at an animal in the wild. We are looking at genetic differences primarily to determine whether it's a Māui dolphin or not.
Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us today, Anton. I've learned so much, and I feel-- yeah. This is very cool. Thank you.
You are most welcome.
That's all for this episode. If you like what you heard, show us some love with a five-star rating. The DOC "Sounds a Science" podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, so subscribe now, never miss an episode.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
Anton van Helden is a marine scientist by day moonlighting as a magician by night, although one could make the point that magic never sleeps. Anton has over 30 years of experience working with and studying marine mammals – before he worked for us, he was at Te Papa. Now, Anton works as a science advisor in our Marine Species Team, assigned to looking after Māui and Hector's dolphins. In this episode, you’ll hear talk of strandings, the subants, toxoplasmosis, pub statistics, and climate, as well as working with iwi on recovery of bones.
Abracadabra, are you listening closely?
Te reo Māori translation:
- Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science.
Hi! My name is Erica Wilkinson and this is a podcast about Sounds of Science.
- Kia ora! Ko Anton tōku ingoa.
Hello! My name is Anton.
The music used in this episode:
- Let’s Get Down to Business by Cast of Characters.
This episode contains specific discussion of dissection which some listeners may find graphic. We kept it reasonably high level. This content warning applies to 8 mins 3 secs to 11 mins 22 secs.
And we also talk about taonga and why dissections are important for iwi at 23 mins 25 secs.
Episode 11: The best bits so far
Transcript for episode 11
[ERICA]: All conservationists have great stories to share, but none quite like Kate McInnes, our DOC Vet.
Kate has one of the most unique jobs in the world: treating our native species and advising on their care. She’s passionate about veterinary teamwork, and she had some wise words of caution for us about feeding native birds (spoiler: don’t).
She’s invented -- and modelled -- kākāpō sperm helmets, traumatised strangers with her work photo gallery, and taught people all over New Zealand about the cumulative impact of things like disease or increased predation.
And she’s got the stories to prove it.
We spoke to Kate in episode two, and she had us in stitches.
[KATE]: So this was a genuine and serious conservation tool, okay? So let's just put that out on the table first.
[NIC]: Don't believe you.
[KATE]: We wanted to find out if kākāpō were duds or studs. So we had a bunch of boys who had never managed to father a baby, and we didn't know if they were fertile or not. And so we wanted to get sperm and have a look at it.
And one of the ways they do that in other endangered species programs -- so it's not something I made up -- is if they have an imprinted boy who thinks he's actually a human, he will come down and try and mate with people.
And they've done this with kestrels. I think it was the Mauritius Kestrel, where they would wear a hat and the boy would bonk the head and they could collect the sperm.
It was like-- it sounded very simple.
So we thought well, the Mauritius Kestrel, I think, is about 250-300 grams. It's really light. A kākāpō is four kilos. And we had one in our sights-- Sirocco, the spokesbird of New Zealand conservation.
I wasn't prepared to have a four kilo kākāpō sitting on a little hat on my head. And I thought the hat might fall off. So I decided that a rugby helmet would be the way to go. And this is New Zealand rugby-- I'm going to embrace it.
So I went down to the shop, bought a rugby helmet, and I thought it's not very attractive. And if he does produce the goods, it's just going to fall off. So I got a big tube of silicon sealant and I covered the hat with silicone and then I made little rings of silicon.
So there were little wells where the business could be done and I could collect it afterwards.
[NIC]: You made the helmet.
[KATE]: I made the helmet in the backyard of my Berhampore house, one sunny afternoon.
[NIC]: That is amazing.
[KATE]: So then we took it down to the island and we went and visited Sirocco, and he got very excited by the whole business. And so for about three nights in a row, I was out there in the evening with him bonking my head. He's quite heavy.
He goes on for a very long time. He grunts the whole time he's doing it. And he didn't produce a thing!
So I'm not sure if that concept was a failure, or he just didn't like how we'd done it, or if he just was never actually going to do it. But yeah. So then, we ended up with a photograph of it, and Te Papa heard about it, and were doing a big exhibit on New Zealand, and we gave them the helmet.
[ERICA]: Colin O’Donnell knows everything there is to know about pekapeka/bats and he’s accumulated some wild stories in the name of science.
He’s encountered popping bats, game-changing technology, tiger prints and gelatinous excretions – which is exactly as gross as it sounds.
Here’s Colin in episode 8.
[NIC] So what is the problem for bats when it comes to wind farms?
[COLIN] Unfortunately, yeah, globally, there's obviously lots of wind farms. And people have been identifying, for quite some time, lots of dead bats under wind turbines.
And it is a global problem that turbines can kill bats. And for a long time, people thought, well, the blades are striking the bats and killing them. But it turns out to be a much more interesting and complex story than that. [LAUGHS]
What happens with wind turbines is that they heat the air. And insects like warmth, and so they get attracted to them. And the bats get attracted to them and feed around the blades.
And there's a Canadian study where they use thermal imagery where you can see the bats actually flying around the curve of the blade, catching insects.
[NIC] In the warm microclimate.
[COLIN] And so again, the bats have amazing skill, I suppose, with the echolocation. And they know the turbine blade's there, and they can fly around it, even how fast the blade is sweeping down.
But the problem is a thing-- the problem is that the blade, at certain wind speeds, creates a change in barometric pressure. And the bats flying around the blade at that time pop. It explodes on the inside--
--from the change in pressure. And it's not funny for the bat.
[NIC] No, it's not funny. It just sends outrageous. Is it like when you dive too deep, and you get the bends, and you explode?
[COLIN] Yeah, I don't know about that.
But it's called barotrauma. And yeah, it will be something like that. So what people are starting to do, though, is figure out, are there bats at my wind farm, and then curtail the activity of the turbines at the times the bats are there.
And overseas, especially in Germany, they're starting to put bat detectors actually in the turbines themselves. And they figure out the conditions when bats are most likely to be there.
And they, basically, program the turbines to switch off when the bats are around.
So it's actually not an insurmountable problem. It's a problem, certainly in New Zealand, we really haven't thought about until recently.
And hopefully, we end up with lots more wind farms in New Zealand in the future.
But we need to, firstly, place them in places where there aren't bats. And there's a hell of a lot of New Zealand doesn't have bats in it.
So think about putting your wind farm in the right place. And then, if it is a batty place, then figure out ways of identifying when the bats are there and turning the turbines off for that period of time.
[ERICA]: Some of these stories might be new for our more recent subscribers -- hello and welcome by the way! -- but perhaps not as new to your ears as Hannah Hendriks, our Marine Species Support Officer, and first ever podcast guest.
Hannah is our go-to for all things marine management. Whale in the harbour? We talk to Hannah. Stranding somewhere? Let’s find Hannah. Research and collaboration with other experts? Hannah will know.
Here she is
[HANNAH]: we had our own Southern right whale encounter in Wellington this year with so-called Matariki the Whale spending over a week now in our Harbour, which was really exciting experience for everyone on our team.
And that's probably my favourite thing of the year, actually. [LAUGHS]
Because so often, we're dealing with strandings and stuff, and it's quite sad. But this was actually really sort of happy, exciting thing to be dealing with. And all the public was really excited.
People were breaking the law, stopping on motorways, and going out in thunderstorms just to look at this thing, like get a glimpse of it.
So that was a great experience. And we got to work with the harbourmaster, the police, and the Council on this.
We obviously had to provide advice to the Council about the fireworks, which was a brand-new experience that none of us expected to have to do.
[NIC]: Did they cancel them in the end?
[HANNAH]: They postponed them to the following weekend.
[NIC]: Because they didn't want to upset the whale.
[HANNAH]: We didn't know how the whale would react. And with all the extra vessels on the water, we thought it would be safer to postpone.
[NIC]: Bless. I love that story. That is a real story of Wellington, the wildlife capital, isn't it?
[NIC]: It puts off its fireworks display, because it doesn't want to disturb the whale.
[ERICA]: For something as big as climate change, you need a pretty spectacular person to lead the charge. Jenny Christie has been talking about climate change for 11 years, and has seen the room change a LOT.
Her job is to figure out how to change what we do to manage the impacts that we can already see, and the impacts we are expecting.
Here she is in episode 10, talking about how our native species are already being affected by climate change, and what we can do about it.
[ERICA]: That's right. I'm really interested in what climate change is already doing to native species – what can we currently see happening?
[JENNY]: What we're starting to see-- and a lot of it's anecdotal, we haven't got the scientific research to back it up-- things like the snails in Northwest Nelson in dry conditions, the ground gets really hard, and they start to die and suffer.
And up North, kiwi as well, if … there's a drought up there at the moment* [NB: this was recorded earlier in the year]. The ground's really hard, and the kiwi struggle to get their beaks into that hard ground.
And that's probably the most topical one at the moment.
But it's also things like native fish species in alpine areas. There's an alpine galaxis in the Manuherikia and it lives in a few small streams up here. And they are temperature limited to below 12 degrees I think it is.
And I think last year the summer was so hot that the waterways were up to 13 or 14 degrees. And so it's like, well, how are these species surviving in that catchment?
And so it's all sorts of things like that.
It's tuatara-- they've got temperature sex determination. So if the eggs get too warm, then are we going to have a lot of male tuatara? It will affect them in a large number of ways and in ways that we haven't thought of.
[ERICA]: Sure. Is that that thing where it's about one-degree difference for that male to female egg in tuataras, and that could be a functionally extinct population just like that?
[JENNY]: I'm not sure of the exact degree difference, but what you're saying is conceptually right.
[ERICA]: It’s the mission of this podcast to give you a behind the scenes look at as much of DOC’s work as possible. Stu Cockburn is a Technical Advisor who focuses on conservation technology.
Which is to say: he invents stuff to save species.
Stu’s made grasshopper detectors, kākāpō trackers and who knows what else -- the tech team’s workshop is a cave of wonders.
Here he is in episode 4 talking about some of his more ingenious creations.
[STU]: … It's kind of hard to pick one thing out.
[NIC] Pick a few.
[Stu] Pick a few? I think from an engineering point of view, one of the things I'm most proud of is the bat recorder we developed seven or eight years ago. It's kind of interesting that it was only in the 1960s
(PS: Stu would like to add post recording that apparently he’s found out there might have been in the 1920s) some time that humans discovered that bats used ultrasound for navigation, which isn't very long ago.
And since then, we've been developing techniques for capturing those sounds as a method of detecting bats.
And in all that time, there's only a handful of methods that have ever been developed, bat engineering sensor for detecting bats. And we created a new one. So we developed a new technology.
And I will always remember the day we went up to Pureora, an amazing place, and we put out these new recorders which theoretically we thought would work. Put them out in the field.
And then we went and gathered them the next morning, put the recordings into the computer.
And there was exactly what we'd expected and intended as theory by not just the engineering theory, but also what we'd read about the biology of bats and what we should be seeing. That was a pretty good moment.
[NIC]: Are you able to describe how they work?
[STU]: Yeah. So the trouble with recording bats, obviously, is that they use ultrasound and humans can't hear ultrasound, of course.
So what you need to do is develop a technique so that we can electronically convert the ultrasound into something humans can interpret. And there's several methods of doing that.
Some of them involve shifting the sounds down electronically so that we can hear them or just recording them and interpreting them on a computer. And ours is a form of that.
As the bats pass by, we record them. We convert it into a thing called a spectogram, which is an image representation of sound. And then we save that as an image. The trick with it is because of the high recording rates, you end up with huge files.
And we've compressed those images in a way that makes them much smaller and easier to handle. So it's kind of a new technique, a new way of doing it. And it works.
[NIC] So as a conservationist engineer, what does that mean for the bats? Because bats are tricky, A, most people don't know they exist, B, when you know they might be around, they're really hard to pin down, and, C, because they move around so much, really tricky to try and look after. So what does your technology mean for those bats?
[STU] It solves a lot of those problems that you just talked about. So what it's done is it's meant we've been able to produce a cheap, easy to use tool. We've made 3,000 of them. And so they used all over the country. And people use them to identify the locations of bats where they are. At least two new populations of bats have been discovered using our recorders.
So really what it means is it puts a detection and monitoring tool into the hands of our conservationists, our field staff, in an easy to use and cheap format. We can build them for our own staff for about a quarter of the price as we can buy something commercially. So it gives us this incredible tool that we can just go out and use, find where they are.
[NIC] What was it like for you guys the first time you trialed them waiting to see those results pop up?
[STU] It's always a little bit fraught when you develop something new. Yeah. I think I made the point at some stage that there's a billion ways of making things that don't work and very few of making ways of things that do work.
So you've always got an expectation of having problems. So on that first morning where it just worked perfectly the first time we put it out to record bats was, yeah, yeah. It's a bit of a buzz.
[NIC] Nailed it
[ERICA]: Did you know that the tallest moss in the world lives right here in New Zealand? Kelly Frogley is a DOC botanist and the only non-vascular plant specialist we have. She can wow you with a fact about lichen having slow-motion turf wars, or that time that she found a lichen on a human skull.
Here she is in episode 9 talking about green-blindness and what that means.
[ERICA]: I love the term green blindness. Can you explain that phrase?
[KELLY]: Yes. So this is a term that I heard at a recent conservation network conference. And I thought it just applied to non-vascular plants perfectly. Green blindness is that sensation when you're walking through a forest, and everything looks the same. You don't really take it in. It's sort of like a green veil is covering everything.
And I'm guilty of doing this in the past. When I was growing up, I would go for walks in the bush and everything would just be a tree. I'd focus on the track.
I'd focus on my breathing. And I wouldn't really notice anything that was around me. And once I started to learn more and to look-- I have a completely new experience when I'm walking through the bush now knowing what I'm surrounded in, what these plants are.
[ERICA]: So you've taken your green blindness off?
[KELLY]: Yes, I've lifted the veil.
[ERICA]: Lifted the veil. I like that one. So how do you get people to lift the veil themselves, to start noticing things around them?
[KELLY]: Cool. Good question. One of my favourite ways of doing that is to find a really mossy rock or log and ask people to look at it and tell me how many different species they see on it. And this includes mosses, liverworts, lichens, hornworts-- whatever's on the rock/log.
And people just sort of look at it. They don't really know. And then they get all up in it. They start to look at different colours, textures, and shapes. And then they realize that actually there's so much living in this one tiny little area. And it's really fun watching people discover that.
[ERICA]: And seeing that there aren't just a couple of species.
[KELLY]: Mm-hmm. Everyone is always surprised.
[ERICA]: That there are more?
[KELLY]: That there are more, yeah. There are lots.
[ERICA]: Similar to the cryptic species she works with, Emma Williams is a rare sight in the office but if you DO spot her she’ll be running around in reed camouflage trousers, carrying transmitters because her team have just found a bird they’ve been tracking.
Emma is our mobile terrestrial threatened species lead and an expert on all things wetlands and the species that rely on them.
With her trusted conservation dog Kimi by her side, Emma has recently discovered something about bittern that changes the whole way we manage them.
Here she is in episode 5 talking about this ground-breaking discovery.
[EMMA]: Since I've been working on bittern, which is quite a while now, we've had two big, I guess, ground-breaking discoveries. One was in 2016. We discovered that there were a lot rarer than we originally thought.
They used to be nationally vulnerable, and now we know they're nationally critical, which is the same threat classification as the kākāpō. And the only way it can go if it gets worse is extinction. So there's a lot that needs to be done with them.
[EMMA]: And so we started managing them then. But we thought at that time that they were quite localized in their movements. That they would stay within a region, and just use a small network of wetlands.
But very recently, thanks to GPS technology, we've actually worked out that they go very long distances.
[EMMA]:So this happened last October time. We put a GPS on our first Canterbury bittern. And it disappeared off-- all of a sudden it turned up in Blenheim, and that was new information for us. So that's 330 kilome ters, and that's showing that, actually, these are national birds.
[EMMA]: We haven't had one go between the North and the South end yet, but this is early days. But basically, the whole of the North Island is the same population of birds.
[NIC]: What kind of population is there do you think roughly?
[EMMA]: So the official estimate that was from the 80s, and was that we had 1,000 birds, 1,000 bittern. But that was not doing any national census, so they will have been double counting some birds.
So that was, basically, a bunch of experts get together from different regions going, oh, well we've got about 20 in our region. We've got about-- and then the other region saying, OK, we've got about 30. And then adding it all up.
[EMMA]: And so now that we know that they move across regions--
[NIC]: They could have been counting the same guy twice.
[EMMA]: Yeah. And they're doing this across the breeding season, so within a relatively short space of time. Yeah.
[NIC]: So I suppose what you've just told us just demonstrates that value of science advice, doesn't it? Because that whole learning new things, throws the management process we had for bittern before out the window essentially, doesn't it?
And it just says, ‘whoops, instead of managing the small area which we thought was going to be good for bittern, you now have to manage the whole lot’. How does that work?
[EMMA]: Yeah, so it's completely thrown everything out because DOC's whole system of managing wildlife is by a site by site basis. We have these things called EMUs, which are Ecological Management Units, and we have SMUs as well, which is—
[EMMA]: Species management units, yes. That's right. And unfortunately, that means that we're managing on a site by site basis. So basically, says Whangamarino wetland is an EMU for bittern. But Kopuatai wetland, which is actually quite close to Whangamarino wetland, isn't for bittern.
But we know now that bittern need both of those sites, and also need the sites in the Bay of Plenty, and also need the sites of the Northland. It's the same bittern.
So if you're only managing a tiny proportion of an animal's habitat, it's like, in humans terms, having good health and safety in one part of your-- just being safe at home, but the rest of the time when you go to work you're doing crazy things and not being safe. It's not going to work.
I've worked out of one site that in one year the bittern were spending 70% of their time outside of the managed site, and the rest of the time they're on farmland, and they're in drains.
And there's no predator control in those places. There's no protection. People don't even know they're there. I had one farmer in the Hawke's Bay when I told them that a bittern was in a little patch of raupō at the bottom of their land, they were really, really excited.
And they were like, oh, well thank god we found that out because we were going to remove that patch of raupō.
And that's the only little patch that that bird has throughout the whole winter. So it was hanging on that one patch if they'd removed it, it wouldn't have had anywhere else to go. So it's really significant to us, and makes a big difference.
[ERICA]: Birds get a lot of attention in the conservation space. That’s not a bad thing, birds are great, but we could all spend a little more time talking about invertebrates -- the unsung heroes of the ecosystem.
Eric’s job is Science Advisor Ecology, which he describes as ‘science advice for saving things’.
He has expertise as a freshwater biologist and an entomologist; and here he is in episode 6 talking about Antipodean albatross and their poo patches.
[NIC]: I've got a note here about Adams Island and something about an interaction you had with a poo patch. (LAUGHING) Can you tell me what on earth that is, please.
[ERIC]: Sure. I talk about marine life bringing-- the birds bringing resources onto the land. And so Adams Island is one of those places that no rodent has ever been on, and it's hard to say for New Zealand. And there's been no fire there, and there's been no pigs or any other sort of thing on that island.
It's far enough north that it still has tall forest on it. And so it is actually one of the most pristine places on the planet, and a very, very important legacy that we must take into the future as it is now.
But the giant albatross that live the-- Antipodes albatross that live on that island, with a wingspan of two meters. They produce pretty-- quite a sizable poo patch around their nests. [LAUGHS] It's meters wide. It's several meters wide. And so all the tussock is lush there, and the herbs are extraordinary around there. And believe it or not, the insects are, too.
So yes, it's where some beetles and moths do rather well. And so that's a place where you dive down on your hands and knees and just poke a stick around and just see how it contrasts. Then you do that in an adjacent area that isn't a poo patch and see the difference. It's marvellous.
[NIC]: It is. And I always feel that there's the one thing people miss when they're talking about restoring places on the mainland. And they want to bring back this kind of bird or that kind of bird. My view is, we should always try really hard to bring the seabirds back first, and let them poo all over the-- let them create poo patches, and drive that ecosystem function.
[ERIC]: There's modelling that tells us where the birds once lived. And so I'm interested in those sorts of places. And I'd like to fast forward it. I often think we should get a crop-dusting aircraft and just go across them and actually redistribute the guano into those places and drive that ecosystem like it once was driven.
[NIC]: And without waiting for the birds.
[ERIC]: Yeah, without waiting for this birds to arrive back.
[ERICA]: Herb is often referred to around the office as ‘our resident expert’. We don’t need to specify -- he’s an expert in everything.
Herb is a conservation storyteller with a long passion for the outdoors and all the critters that inhabit it.
This episode was by far the biggest for us to edit, because Herb knows so much, and has so many stories. He’s a DOC treasure for sure.
In particular, he has a lot of knowledge about how conservation in Aotearoa has evolved over the years. Off we go to episode 7.
[NIC] I hinted earlier that you've been with the Department of Conservation for a wee while now. You're one of our most gifted science communicators, so over that time what are the real, kind of, neat science and technical advances that you've seen-- from the beginning of your career into DOC, and to now, and perhaps with a view to the future?
[HERB] I was thinking about this earlier on because I had asked myself this in anticipation. And one of the most simple straightforward things is GPS. You know. I went on to an operation one time with a map and a compass, and the guy next to me had a GPS. And so it was like you're replacing the old.
And I was very adept at using a compass and map and I could find my way around the bush-- not blindfolded because I wouldn't be able to see my map. But this guy with a GPS, he was similarly also very adept at using the GPS. And I could see this coming a mile away.
And the next minute you know, the GPS was involved in determining where our species were, how we manage our helicopter flights, everything. Just positioning.
Because we're such a spatial organization GPS has made a huge difference to how we manage species and pests, just everywhere. How you identify where the pests are, how you identify where species are, what their habitats are.
Everything has to do with that, and doing that without a GPS-- I don't know how the hell we did it.
[ERICA]: Lizards don’t get enough love! Of course, if you ask any one of DOC’s staff about what area needs more attention, they’ll say theirs, such is the nature of being a dedicated conservationist.
Lynn Adams makes a brilliant point though: lizards need more limelight.
Our lizards are unlike those anywhere else in the world (for starters, they give birth to live young!), and Lynn’s been all over the country working with our lizard species.
In episode 3 she talks about her long love affair with the Chesterfield Skink.
[LYNN] So, Chesterfield skink lives on this fairly unremarkable piece of beach just north of Hotikika. It's a nationally critical species. And we've done a reasonable amount of research on it over the last three to four years.
[Nic]: Is it the one with the curly wurly tail?
[Lynn]: Curly wurly. [LAUGHS]
[Nic]: I love this one.
[Lynn]: Yes, curly wurly. So that was a name that we gave to a skink. It curls its tail. Its whole body actually curls up into this-- it's like a curly fry.
[Nic]: Yes, or like Mr. Whippy ice cream.
[Lynn]: Or a turd, I've been told.
[Nic]: Seems we're always going to go there in this podcast.
[Lynn]: That aside, so the reason it's got a nice curly wurly tail is because we think it's probably arboreal. So, they use that tail just like monkeys do to grip onto forests. And so, the species is now living on the coast, on the beach.
It was probably coastal forest back in the day. And it's all been cut down. It's lost most of its habitat. It's probably been preyed upon by all the mice and cats and hedgehogs in the world. And it's now down to a population of 200.
We had a major setback last year with Cyclone Fehi which I'm sure lots people are going to remember that one. It was a really damaging cyclone. And what happened at our Chesterfield skink site was that on the we thought was safe beach site, there were these massive waves, massive tides which overwashed them. The whole entire population was overwashed over a couple of tides.
And so, I got that news when I was sitting in Invercargill doing some other work. And I actually thought that we'd lost the whole species. So that was my worst day.
[Lynn]: There were a few tears. [LAUGHS]
[Nic]: I'm not surprised.
[Lynn]: There were a few tears
[ERICA]: Thanks for joining us on this whirlwind tour of past episodes of the DOC Sounds of Science podcast.
Now these are just snippets, each guest has a full length episode, which you should absolutely check out if you haven’t already.
This show is a glimpse behind the curtain at DOC’s work, and an opportunity for nature lovers all around the world to learn from experts and nerd out over our shared passion.
In 2020, many of us have had to slow down and take time to reflect on the most important things in our lives. We’ve had to change how we live, and what we can do.
For Conservation Week 2020, we are encouraging everyone to look at nature through new eyes. Immerse yourself – online or offline.
We’ve got this, Aotearoa.
Stay kind. Kia kaha.
The DOC "Sounds a Science" podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, so subscribe now, never miss an episode.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
In honour of Conservation Week, we’ve put together a supercut of all our favourite moments from the past ten episodes. Lichens, bats, kākāpō sperm helmets (we couldn’t make this up), GPS, poo patches and more – this episode is packed to the brim with stories from all of our previous guests.
The birdsong used in this episode is the pīwakawaka/fantail.
Te reo translation:
- Kia ora! Ko Erica Wilkinson tēnei. He kōnae ipurangi tēnei, e pā ana ki ngā Sounds of Science.
- Hi! My name is Erica Wilkinson and this is a podcast about Sounds of Science
The music used in this episode:
- Let’s Get Down to Business by Cast of Characters
- Business or Pleasure by Avocado Junkie.