Hi, I’m Derryn, and I’m the Fieldwork Coordinator at Auckland Zoo. I’m a relative newcomer to the Zoo, having built up my ‘transferable skills’ in other sectors for many years and I went back to university to complete a degree in Ecology and Environmental Science so that I could pursue my passion to work in conservation. This a role where no two days are the same, and as I write this from home, that hasn’t changed!

Auckland Zoo is dedicated to wildlife conservation, both here at the zoo and in the wild. Through our fieldwork programme, zookeepers utilise their specialist skills and expertise in helping to conserve iconic threatened species such as kiwi, kākāpō, tākahe and wetāpunga, as well as lesser known (but no less important!) cobble skink, rifleman and black mudfish to name but a few. Our ‘WildWork’ includes breed to release programmes at the zoo, carrying out predator control activities, translocations (moving animals from one site to another), conducting distribution or population surveys, or researching the behaviour and ecology of little-known species. We work alongside national conservation partners, including the Department of Conservation, as well as engaging with local community groups and other NGO’s across the length and breadth of New Zealand.

But our work doesn’t stop at the New Zealand border. Over the years we’ve worked in many incredible, far-flung destinations around the world, including Nepal, Sumatra and Namibia, where we’ve dedicated more than 2,000 hours to saving wildlife unique to those ecosystems. In recent years, Auckland Zoo’s international field work has increasingly focused closer to home, providing guidance, support and resources to a number of vital field work projects throughout the South Pacific, including efforts to save the manumea (tooth-billed pigeon) in Samoa and the Marquesas monarch (a flycatcher) in French Polynesia.

As Fieldwork Coordinator I’m able to report on all these projects, because when I started in the role, I inherited a comprehensive database - an electronic account of all the field work we have done since 2011. These spreadsheets not only represent the time zoo staff have spent in the field working towards the conservation of our precious native species, they also reflect the hours, days, weeks (and sometimes months!) of emailing, organizing and coordination between multiple stakeholders to arrange the logistics, funding and resourcing before our field work can take place.

Despite the urgency to better understand and protect endangered species, sometimes the biggest hurdle is not what needs to be done, but how we are going to get it done. Take for instance the case of the Muriwai gecko - fantastically cute, but unfortunately not seen very often! This little critter lives somewhere along the west coast of the upper North Island - they’ve definitely been found at Muriwai (hence the name) - but we don’t know how many there are, how far along the coast their distribution extends, nor do we know much about their habitat use and what poses the biggest threats to their survival. We therefore need to undertake a delimitation survey (using mark and recapture methods) to better understand these remnant populations, but the process of how to get it done becomes a bit tricky in the context of coordinating multiple government and community stakeholders (with their own remit and resourcing restrictions), finding out who owns the land we wish to access and gaining permissions, not to mention the logistics and health and safety considerations of working in remote coastal areas spotted with treacherous quicksand!

Speaking of which, health and safety is a huge component of field work planning and execution. Our keepers are often out in tricky terrain, exposed to the elements for hours on end, as they strain their eyes to spot the ever-elusive kōkako in the dense canopy above them, or muddy their hands and knees hunting at night for cryptic Archey’s frogs on the forest floor. Over the years, the zoo has developed extensive hazard registers and written in-depth field guides for our regular field work sites. We also have a well-stocked field store with the gear required for weather all conditions. The physical and sometimes remote nature of field work means that we ask a lot of our staff, but to be hands-on in the field, directly engaged in conservation work is incredibly rewarding and for many of our keepers is a dream come true!

Of course, none of this would be possible without financial support. Whilst core zoo operational funding covers our staff time, we are also eternally grateful to those dedicated keepers, who in 2001 put their heads together and created the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund (AZCF). Whilst the lion’s share (if you’ll excuse the pun!) of this fund is granted to external conservation partners, our WildWork relies upon an internal grant which covers field work travel expenses and specialist equipment required to get crucial conservation work done. This means Auckland Zoo field work programme would be impossible without YOU – the zoo community – because for every visit you make to Auckland Zoo, a portion of the cost of your ticket goes to the AZCF and funding our Wild Work.

New Zealand is recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, with the vast majority of our native species found nowhere else in the world. Since 2011, the Auckland Zoo field work programme has dedicated nearly 55,000 hours to conserving our unique wildlife in their natural environment – that’s the equivalent of almost 30years fulltime work! I feel deeply privileged to work for an organization that is passionate about protecting New Zealand’s taonga and fostering our visitor’s connection with and love for wildlife and wild places.

Keep an eye out for our WildWork stories on social media!