Emily Writes visits Auckland Zoo to meet some of New Zealand’s rarest species and the people tasked with ensuring they not only survive, but thrive.
Standing in a room not much bigger than a closet, filled with rows of plastic tanks holding tiny skinks it was difficult to appreciate the magic I was surrounded by. That was until I realised I was standing with the last creatures of this species on the entire planet.
Hidden behind the main visitor areas at Auckland Zoo, there are many magical places like this. More than 700,000 visitors come to the zoo every year; most would walk past the tiny kitset rooms that look like container storage without a second thought. But inside, something incredible is happening. Every day in these little spaces, species are being saved from extinction.
This is some of the core work of Auckland Zoo. Wildlife conservation is the reason it exists and it’s the power of those 700,000 visitors which makes the hidden work of this not-for-profit organisation possible
These little cobble skinks weigh no more than a teaspoon of sugar. They were first discovered on a tiny beach north of Westport in 2007. There were just 36 left when in 2016 the Department of Conservation (DOC) took them to Auckland Zoo. Just after the move Cyclone Gita hit their coastal habitat, destroying it completely.
In 2017 four babies were born at the zoo bringing the total number of cobble skinks in New Zealand up to 40. Since then, two bumper breeding seasons have seen the population rise to 73. But the end goal isn’t just for these skinks to survive in a zoo, it’s for them to thrive in the wild.
The conservation programme at the Auckland Zoo is essential to the survival of some of New Zealand’s rarest species. Wētāpunga outlived the dinosaurs but they almost didn’t outlive humans. An intensive breeding programme for wētāpunga at Auckland Zoo has resulted in more than 6000 being released into the wild onto more than five islands free of mammalian predators where they are now thriving.
The Archey’s frog is Aotearoa’s tiniest frog. I am lucky enough to see one having a medical check by a keeper when I visit the research lab at Auckland Zoo where it lives. It’s very cute. And it’s number one on the list of Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered species compiled by the Zoological Society of London.
The Archey’s frog lives in Whareorino and the Coromandel Peninsula. And that’s it. Just two homes in the world – until recently. In 2017, Auckland Zoo was able to move 60 frogs to a third location where DOC had previously introduced a small population. The Pureora Forest was chosen after intensive study of the frogs found they might be at risk from chytrid fungus, an infectious pathogen that affects their skin cells and disturbs their ability to breathe. The new population offers these precious endangered frogs additional hope of survival.
I’m in awe of this conservation work that most visitors to the zoo never get to see. But surprisingly, Auckland Zoo’s head of animal care and conservation Richard Gibson suggests this isn’t the most important function of the zoo.
“No, this isn’t our biggest impact,” he says. “It’s our visitors, it’s what they do after they leave us. That’s what matters the most.”
Gibson has nearly 30 years’ experience working in conservation across zoos and NGOs around the world. At Auckland Zoo he is in charge of animal care and welfare and the conservation programmes. He is passionate about the survival of species, and the role of the zoo in preserving the future of the planet’s biodiversity. But he believes the most significant contribution to that mission is in the huge potential of the Auckland Zoo to foster a meaningful relationship between people and the environment and reconnect them with the planet.
“The world is increasingly removed from nature. Humans are living increasingly apart from nature. We now know how incredibly wrong that is. We can’t survive without nature and nature can’t survive without us now,” he says. “The sixth mass extinction is upon us, and it’s caused by us, by people. And we need to do something about that.”
But we can’t be inspired to protect our environment and our species if we don’t understand their magic and their importance, he says. That relies on giving people access to and an understanding of the importance of the natural world to our future and inspiring people to advocate for it.
“For many people living in urban areas, good zoos are the only places where they can reconnect with nature to grow a love and appreciation for nature, so they are more likely to protect nature and do something about biodiversity loss and climate change,” he says.
“Many of the people who visit us here will never have seen the species we have in the wild and they never will. So how will they appreciate them? And if they don’t appreciate them, will they want to protect them? How will they understand their own impact on wildlife if they don’t come and see this wildlife?”
So he takes me to see some black mudfish – a threatened endemic wetlands species the zoo is breeding for future release to the wild. The fish themselves are not much to look at. To be honest, they look like turds. But the way Gibson talks about them and their survival makes me want to start a mudfish survivalist club.
Gibson talks a mile a minute and it’s hard to keep up, but I can’t help but ride the wave of his passion. He talks about habitat loss and the impact on the mudfish. He talks about introduced predators and competitors which threaten the mudfish.
Most of all he poses questions; often they’re questions he has grappled with for some time. Questions he wants us as zoo-goers to ask. Questions like, what is a zoo? And why do we need them in 2021?
“Zoos often get bad press, and many people suggest we should get rid of the word zoo. But we want to be proud of the word zoo – because we are proud of what we do.”
But not all zoos are created equal. Internationally, there are many zoos that don’t have the same passionate care for their animals or investment in conservation. Gibson regrets the way “forward-thinking, internationally recognised, modern zoos like Auckland” may be lumped along with organisations that don’t operate to the same high standards in the care of their animals and investment in conservation, education and scientific mission.
“Around the world there are a lot of very bad zoos. And we would love to see those zoos either improve or close. We are tainted by the brush that says all zoos are like that.”
This frustrates Gibson, who (like most of the staff at Auckland Zoo) has dedicated his life to saving species. But he also sees the discussion as important – as do all the keepers I speak to.
“We support organisations that are working with bad zoos to make them good zoos but it’s also an enormous problem. There are thousands of entities called zoos in the world – it needs governments and local authorities to take a stand when it comes to the role of these places and the standards to which they operate.”
It’s not an easy fix. But the question of what a zoo is and what its role is matters, says Kevin Buley. He has been at Auckland Zoo for over 11 years. He started in Richard Gibson’s role and is now the zoo’s director. He has worked with animals his entire life, and when he began his career in animal care, first as a volunteer, he didn’t particularly like zoos and didn’t want to work in one. But the definition of a zoo and its work has developed in his own mind in the time he’s been working in the field.
“I didn’t really see the role of the zoo in conservation and wellbeing. But it was after spending time volunteering at the reptile house at Jersey Zoo that I saw how the skills and knowledge of a dedicated staff in a good modern zoo contribute to conservation of wildlife in the wild, and also the increased need for this, as we face mass extinction.”
Much has changed since that first volunteer posting. The responsibilities of the keeper have evolved as the zoo has taken on a much more holistic role in the environmental movement. This role isn’t just about providing veterinary care or intensive management of a species in the zoo anymore. It’s about understanding how to translate that knowledge into efforts in the wild too, says Buley.
“As populations and habitats continue to shrink under ongoing human pressures, we’re finding that many species in the wild are only surviving due to active ongoing intensive management using the skills and expertise that zoos have perfected over years – it’s genuinely the difference between a species surviving and going extinct. Auckland Zoo is uniquely placed to do that with the Department of Conservation.”
The Auckland Zoo and DOC work closely across a number of conservation partnerships. From the Kākāpō Recovery project, on which the Auckland Zoo has provided veterinary care for more than 15 years, to the coordinated protection and rejuvenation of the tara iti (fairy tern), one of the world’s rarest birds.
Fifteen years ago, Auckland Zoo lacked a strategic role for conservation in New Zealand. That’s what has evolved, says Buley.
“We know what we need to do now, and we’re doing it. Especially in our advocacy role in engaging our communities and providing them with an opportunity to connect with wildlife, and we know that’s the only way we are going to win this environmental and conservation battle.”
Being a good zoo is more than just about the way it looks after its animals. It’s about the way it inspires its visitors and takes the public on a journey of advocacy for the environment.
“Good zoos have the power to change the course of people’s lives. We need that – people making a difference, people putting pressure on governments and local authorities, corporations and businesses – to make positive change and put the needs of our environment first.”
Auckland Zoo’s “foundation of good science” is at the heart of it all, Buley says. He hopes visitors can see and experience this evidence-based approach and know the species in the zoo are protected, surviving, thriving.
“I want to redefine what the word zoo means. I want people to see and feel the relevance of our zoo in their lives and in the world of conservation. Come and see what we do, see how Auckland Zoo is different.”
While Auckland Zoo is on the front lines of a battle we’re currently losing, Buley believes that’s why its role is more important than ever. When visitors see the species in their habitats and the conservation efforts that got them there it can change the way they see the bigger issues, he says.
“I want people to feel hope when they visit,” Buley says. “It’s easy at the moment to lose any kind of optimism of where we will end up in this world. But there are powerful reasons to feel good about what we can do as individuals and what we can do as a collective.”
The work of Auckland Zoo is a powerful emblem of that potential. Beyond the bond it builds between visitors and the animals, behind the scenes it shows the real impact that can be made. The zoo is building a community of advocates that will define our future.
“That’s the power of a collective, of a community, we can make a difference when we connect with wildlife and work together for change.”