This week we spoke to Chrissy, who is a wildlife keeper and volunteer co-ordinator at the Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown, New Zealand. The Park is a family-owned wildlife sanctuary which aims to inspire and educate the public about New Zealand wildlife and conservation. They also aim to increase wild native populations through their breed-for-release programmes and rehabilitation work. Chrissy looks after a number of native bird and reptile species, while managing the volunteers at the park. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Chrissy!
What made you work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
I can’t pinpoint a specific moment or one thing that inspired me to get involved with conservation but I know I have been passionate about the planet since I was young. I grew up in Singapore and the school I went to often took us on trips to the zoo and nature reserves as part of their ‘Open Minds’ programme. I got to see lots of different animals, learn about conservation efforts, the need for them and learn a lot about field work too. I spent most of my free time outdoors as a kid looking for insects, catching tadpoles and playing in a lot of dirt! Singapore is also a very strict country and as a result VERY clean. So I have always been conscious of the waste we generate, where that goes, the impact of it on the planet and ways to be more sustainable.
What steps led you to where you are today?
I moved to the UK when I started secondary school and found Science in general was my favourite subject. I did really well in Physics, OK at Chemistry and I was terrible at Biology… so of course Biology was my absolute favourite subject of all and I carried on with it through to A-Levels (high school)! Before starting the first year, I had already decided that I wanted to study Conservation Biology at university so needed this subject too. I really struggled and had to re-sit a lot of Biology exams and re-do an entire school year because of it but eventually managed to scrape a pass (a low D grade!). I didn’t get into any of the universities I had applied to so went through a process called ‘clearing’, where universities list course vacancies so those with lower grades and low points can still have the chance to enrol. I ended up doing a 1 year FdSc in Integrated Wildlife Conservation at UWE, Bristol which then turned into a BSc (Hons) after completing another 2 years. After leaving university and just about paying off my student overdraft, I then decided to apply for a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa and move out here to meet up with two of my best friends! I had no money so my friends got me a job straight away as a house keeper/cleaner.
How did you end up in your current job?
Whilst in New Zealand, I saw a job come up at the park in the local paper as a Receptionist and just wanted to be involved in the conservation industry in any way possible. I went in with my CV to chat to them face-to-face and after several interviews, they hired me. If you want something, go after it! I worked hard, read a lot, made a little journal for all the animal facts for each species and asked lots of questions during my 1 year there as a Receptionist. I then went back to the UK to do a 1 year MSc in Advanced Wildlife Conservation with the intention to return to New Zealand as I had already fallen in love with the wildlife here. When I came back, the park hired me as a Wildlife Keeper and later on I also put my hand up to become the Volunteer Co-ordinator.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
Successful rehabilitation and breed-for-release for sure. Both aspects involve releasing animals into the wild so the immediate conservation benefits are seen and felt and there is honestly no better feeling! When our breed-for-release species lay their eggs, we are either involved in the incubation process or we watch the parents raise their young. The whole process is so incredibly interesting and there is always something new to learn. But the actual act of releasing them is definitely my favourite aspect!
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
There are two main ones. The first was when I presented my first Conservation Show! Public speaking always terrified me but is SUCH an important skill to have as a conservationist and a powerful communication tool. The other was the first rehabilitation case that I got to release. We nursed a Black-billed gull/tarāpuka (the most threatened species of gull in the world!) back to health and I took him down to the lake front and let him go. He went straight into the water and I sat and watched him have a bath and fly off. Will never forget any of my ‘release memories’! Can you tell I love that part most?
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
The amount of people showing interest in becoming involved in conservation seems to be rapidly increasing. Environmental topics are getting so much more exposure in the media and more people appear to be making changes to their lifestyle. It’s by no means enough yet and there is a lot of ‘green washing’ as a result, but in terms of awareness and changes in attitudes, it’s moving us in the right direction for sure! The biggest changes will come from law and policy changes and some governments are thankfully finally starting to listen. Hopefully bigger changes are coming especially after the global reality check that is ‘Covid-19’.
What advice would you give to new conservationists trying to build a career?
Don’t ever give up! It is a competitive field so work experience is very important. Always apply for that job you want even if you don’t think you are qualified and put real effort into your CV. Volunteer wherever you can, make as many connections as possible. E-mail anyone involved in conservation and ask if they need any help. Show your passion in any way you can. If you don’t have the means to get a qualification at university then use all the resources you have available to you. Find books and scientific journals, read as much as you can online or go to a library. Look up scientific definitions for words you don’t understand. A lot of the content from my university courses can be accessed by anyone, you just have to be motivated to look for it! Go on social media and look for credible mentors/coaches or find local tutors. Start by learning about your local wildlife, a lot of knowledge can be applied elsewhere later on. If you do go to university, join societies and clubs! Create your own personal network with other students and teachers. The main advice though is to stay positive. When you jump into your conservation career journey, the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ will probably pop into your head A LOT. Don’t focus on the doom and gloom of what’s happened or is happening in the world. Focus on what YOU can do to help and WHO you can work with to achieve your goals! Lastly don’t exclude working with those who are not in the environmental/conservation industry. We need everyone on board from all walks of life. As long as they want to help you with your goal, let them. They will bring in a whole other set of skills and knowledge!
What are your future career goals?
I would love to be a Kea Ranger in my local area in my free time, and to have and train a ‘kea detection dog’ too to bring with me! Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot species and an incredibly intelligent bird too. Because they live in such difficult to reach places, not enough is currently known about the state of their populations so I would love to help contribute to this research. I would have to get into some serious hiking and learn a lot about survival which will take a lot of determination!
Why do you think people should care about conservation and the environment?
We simply cannot reverse billions of years of evolution through damage and destruction just because we want everything to be convenient in our lives. Doesn’t it sound ridiculous when you put it like that? “Extinction is a race we cannot afford to lose” is one of my favourite quotes. I also believe humans are equal to all other living things so I think people should look after the environment for ethical reasons mainly. We are very intelligent beings but that does not make us superior or more important. Wherever you are on the scale though… whether you care more about human needs or the needs of the environment and all other living things it doesn’t matter. Every single aspect of a life is made possible because of the planet we live on. It all comes back to Earth and its resources. It must be looked after for pure survival. For us and for all the other amazing, beautiful and interesting species of plants and animals we share this place with now and in the future!
How did the Kiwi Birdlife Park start?
Dick and Noeleen Wilson used to own a local garage and would always get asked where kiwi could be seen locally. As there is nowhere relatively close by to spot kiwi, the family had the idea of starting up the park where people could come and see these wonderful, elusive birds and learn more about them. Land was leased from the council in the middle of Queenstown and the clearing and building began! The land took 2 and a half years to clean up and the park officially opened in 1986. 34 years later and it is now being directed by the son of Dick and Noeleen, Paul Wilson!
What conservation issues are your organisation dealing with?
We communicate lots with the public about the issue of introduced mammals in New Zealand, and how they predate so heavily on the native species here. Habitat destruction is also a huge issue as well as how people are treating the land when spending their days outdoors. We want people to be tidy, to respect wildlife they come into contact with and leave as little trace as possible in places they have been. We try and show our visitors ways on how they can reduce their impacts!
Can you give an insight into what an average day is like on the project?
Every day is different which makes it a really exciting place to work. Cleaning and feeding all the animals is just the basics! There are lots of animals to routinely health check which sometimes involves taking trips to the vets for full screens. We get to go behind the scenes and learn more about these processes (x-rays, bloods etc) too which is really interesting. Sometimes we do airport trips if our animals are being sent off elsewhere to get ready for the wild. It’s an interesting feeling walking through the departure terminal with a box full of noisy ducklings or driving on the highway with a flapping kea! We also regularly go off-site to collect substrate for our birds, especially our kiwi. So some mornings are spent in a beautiful local beech forest collecting logs and leaves. We then have to screen all of this before it goes into our kiwi houses which is a big job. The job has taught me a variety of skills. We are not just wildlife keepers, but also plumbers, electricians, gardeners and botanists! There is a lot involved when looking after such a variety of species with different needs! All this whilst interacting with the general public too so customer service is also a part of the role.
What are the organisations biggest achievements?
It has been a huge journey from the start with many great milestones and achievements. The park used to be Queenstown’s unofficial rubbish dump. All was cleared including many invasive plants to make room for the park we see today. We have also removed over 130 invasive pine trees, a HUGE effort, and replaced these with over 15,000 native trees which have been planted with another 2,000 to go this year at least. As a result we have seen so many more wild native species coming back into the park so this has really turned into a real wildlife sanctuary in the middle of Queenstown! We have recently built several new aviaries, some by using recycled timber from the invasive pine trees removed so it’s a great sustainability story and currently have the largest nocturnal kiwi house in the country which has just opened.
How can people help support your organisation or get involved themselves?
Come and visit us! We are not government funded so rely on all of our visitors to keep the park going. Post any pictures or videos on social media you take of your visit and tag us, leave reviews online if you have enjoyed your visit and tell all your friends and family about us! If you are in Queenstown for a little longer then get in touch and come and volunteer too 😊 We have also recently just started a GiveaLittle page to help us get through the impacts of Covid-19 which you can donate to at www.kiwibird.co.nz/support-us!