As Auckland Zoo’s utilities technician, Mark Blackburn is our Kaitiaki o te Wai (guardian of the water).

The lover of Aotearoa’s seas, rivers and lakes believes every day should be World Water Day and is passionate about conserving our planet’s most precious resource that people, plants and animals alike all need to exist.

What do you love about water, and how did it become so central to your work?

Water creates life. I think that says it all! I’m an outdoors person and love being on or in the water. I came to New Zealand from the UK because of this country’s renowned pristine landscapes, oceans and rivers, and am struck by how much people here care about the environment.  I trained as a plumber and gasfitter and have worked on many different projects within the construction industry, and also had my own business. Over the years my career has evolved to focus more and more on water use and management.

What inspired you to work at Auckland Zoo?

I was thirsty for a role that would be fulfilling, and I could get passionate about. Our future here in New Zealand and globally needs to be very focused on addressing water issues like quality and consumption and looking after all of the environment, and that’s happening here at the Zoo.

A big driver in my taking this job was it coinciding with the start of construction of the new South East Asia development, the biggest project in the Zoo’s history. It’s very exciting and offering me so many opportunities to utilise my skills with Zoo staff and the wider South East Asia project team to be innovative in how we sustainably use and manage water now and long-term.  

Tell us about some of the exciting water initiatives in the South East Asia development?

Rainwater harvesting: Across the Zoo, we already harvest and store a quarter of a million litres of rainwater to use for animal wash-downs, washing animal areas, irrigation and flushing toilets. All South East Asia buildings will have water tanks, that will see us double rainwater harvesting to half a million litres to further reduce our reliance on town supply water.

In the new Tropical Dome (the Indonesian swamp forest habitat for crocodiles, fish and other reptiles) it’ll be harvested rainwater that will irrigate all the plants and feed the special misting and rain systems. Yes, you could get rained on in this tropical world - it’s going to incredible!

New technologies: The new interface technologies we’re installing are the best available and give us the ability to monitor, track and trace our usage, catch any leaks, and adjust as required to ensure we’re using water as efficiently and sustainably as we can, and fulfil our goal to keep reducing our reliance on potable mains (town supply) water.

In a new ‘three-ring’ mains around South East Asia, we have independent systems for harvested rainwater, the water we’re able to draw from Western Springs lake (a natural aquifer) and potable mains water. The plumbing being used enables these systems to ‘talk’ to each other.  It’s the first phase in a Zoo-wide upgrade of all infrastructure services throughout the Zoo thanks to the great support of Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA).

Organic filtering systems:  Our lake in the centre of the Zoo and within the South East Asia area already acts as a storm water and sediment catchment. Here we’re installing an organic reed bed filter system and will also be putting in wetlands plants that will act as a natural filtration system. Its environmentally friendly, using sustainable ecological processes to breakdown organic matter to clarify, clean and improve the water quality.

Trying to be conscious of the plastics and micro plastics that contaminate water is also a huge problem that we need consider when going about our day to day lives. While all little things, they do add up, and that’s what I’d really encourage everyone to remember.

Mark Blackburn

Where does all Auckland Zoo’s water come from, and how is it used?

Our water comes from potable mains (town supply), harvested rainwater, and Western Springs lake, a natural spring. Thanks to Auckland Council’s Wai Ora-Healthy Waterways, we to have consent to draw and recycle water from this next-door spring, which we value immensely.

It’s water from Western Springs that’s used to fill our animal moats (which themselves all have an important sediment settlement function), the swimming hole for our elephants, and to irrigate our extensive botanical gardens. This water is also used for water features like waterfalls in our giraffe paddock and within Te Wao Nui.

We use harvested rainwater for flushing toilets, animal wash-downs, and some irrigation. Potable mains water is used for some of our animal’s specialised life support systems to create unique living environments, enabling us to bring immersive underwater worlds from the seas to the heart of Auckland's city. 

What is the Zoo doing to use water more efficiently and ensure water quality?

As a not-for-profit conservation organisation that’s also CarboNZero accredited, we’re always working to improve our performance. As is best practice, we monitor, track and trace all our water use, which helps us identify things like unusual spikes in use or leaks. We’ve really intensified and been improving how we monitor, and this has resulted in significantly reduced water usage.

Water quality is also a very big focus. As we’ve done for decades, we regularly test any water coming into the Zoo (e.g. from Western Springs) and treat and test all water going out to ensure water sanitation and improved water quality. To achieve this, all water leaving us that goes into Meola Creek and out into the Waitemata, is specially treated with an eco-friendly Envirolyte solution. We’re very proud that the water we’re using, and all our run-off is at a better quality when it leaves us and has no negative impacts on our environment.

All new buildings, like our recently completed Administration block, have tanks so we can harvest rainwater to use for things like toilet flushing and irrigating gardens.

We also install water saving devices; simple things like adjusting toilet flow valve levels from the standard nine litres to six litres can make a big difference. It may sound a small thing, but with dozens of toilets throughout the Zoo, this helps us save hundreds of thousands of litres every year. Imagine if every household in Auckland did this, we’d be able to save our city many millions of precious litres a year!


It's not every day you see elephants look weightless!

Thanks to our elephant keepers, we're able to show you this stunning underwater footage of Burma and Anjalee in their pool.

How are we helping Zoo visitors to conserve water and reduce impacts on our water and marine environments?

Our outdoor water bottle filling stations around the Zoo, that don’t rely on any power, are fantastic and enable our visitors to fill their reusable water bottles. Along with plastic bags, we’ve removed all single-use plastic water and juice bottles from our food outlets and visitors are encouraged to bring their own or purchase re-usable bottles at the Zoo.  As everyone knows, plastic pollution in our oceans and other water bodies is having a catastrophic impact on marine species, so there’s great urgency for us all to reduce our plastic use.

How do you personally conserve water and help protect our oceans and waterways?

As a plumber, I’m really into using water-saving devices and flow restrictors to reduce water flow levels in the toilet and shower, and I try and keep my showers short. I’ve also switched from using shampoos and liquid soaps (that come in plastic containers) to soap bars. They’re really good, and this all helps reduce single use plastic. I’ve also got an Auckland Zoo re-usable water bottle. I use this for work, home, the gym and cycling. Trying to be conscious of the plastics and micro plastics that contaminate water is also a huge problem that we need consider when going about our day to day lives.

While all little things, they do add up, and that’s what I’d really encourage everyone to remember.  Both individually and together, we have a lot of power to really make a positive difference.