We recently helped our friends and conservation partners at Matuku Reserve gain a birds-eye view of the landscape they’re working hard to conserve.

A beauty to behold, Matuku Link Reserve is 37 stunning hectares of wetland and native bush set within Bethells’ Valley and adjacent to Te Henga Wetland, the largest wetland in the Auckland region. It’s home to at-risk Aotearoa species such as pāteke and pūweto (spotless crake) as well as native eel, crayfish, and a vast array of forest birds.

A few weeks ago, lead primate keeper Craig and zoo design and construction manager Tim set off to meet with the Matuku Link team for a full day of survey work. Harnessing the technology of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or drones they were able to extensively map terrain that, to humans, has only been accessible by boat.

Drones are an exciting new tool in Auckland Zoo’s conservation toolbox that currently allow for detailed maintenance checks of zoo infrastructure. Auckland Zoo’s UAV (drone) team was set up in 2019 to respond to a variety of needs, some of which are soon-to-be-realised later this year. Excitingly, this work is the first of what we envision to be many opportunities where we can put this technology to use for the conservation of wildlife and wild places.

Our cutting-edge High Canopy habitat features over two kilometers of vine-like ropes that sprawl over the visitor pathway and past our café and central lake area, linking up to nine 20-25m high support structures. These aerial pathways encourage our orangutan and siamangs natural behaviours, showcasing what amazing climbers these arboreal great apes truly are. A world-leading design, of the kind not before seen in Australasia, special attention needs to be given to the maintenance of each rope and tower to ensure their safety and longevity. With a trained UAV team, drones become a cost effective and time efficient way to monitor spaces like these easily and carefully.

A collaborative affair, the UAV team is formed by staff from a range of departments across the Zoo – from keeping teams, to marketing and comms, to assets and facilities. Each member of the team follows the New Zealand Civil Aviation Rules and carries a 101 pilot certificate.

Out in the field, Craig and Tim mapped the landscape at Matuku Link to help with the removal of invasive plant species. Willows in particular are a pest-plant that compete with our native plants for resources and clog up the pristine river. The team at Matuku Link are hoping to control these species and over time, they’ll be able to see if their methods have been working.

Late last year we also lent our zoo-skills to help surveying efforts for the elusive pūweto, a small dark-coloured rail that inhabits this wetland area. The Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund also gives financial support to Te Henga Wetland so that vital pest control efforts can be carried out there. This funding goes towards maintaining a consistent trapping network in the area, ensuring the long-term survival of native birds and reptiles, the positive benefits of which would also be felt at the neighbouring Matuku Link.

With these new skills under our belt, we have plans to build on the use of this technology for conservation fieldwork with partner organisations in the beautiful Regional Parks and eco-sanctuaries around Aotearoa.