Zealandia's conservation manager Raewyn Empson talks about birds, travel and the problem with cats.
Did you always want to get into conservation?
I've always loved animals. I grew up on a farm in Te Horo and was very into horses. We had pet calves for the calf day and pet sheep. So I knew my career would focus around animals.
When did you become involved in Zealandia?
I became a wildlife worker in 1984 and got a job with DOC [Department of Conservation] when it was established. In 1998 I got seconded to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary for two years. The project here at Karori was only just getting off the ground. There was no fence and it was still all up in the air, so I didn't want to resign my job at the department. After two years I decided there were so many challenges and so much fun here it was the best place for me.
Have you travelled with the job?
When I worked for the department there was quite a bit of travel when we transferred animals and birds and there has been some while I've been at Zealandia. Most of the transfers from Zealandia are to Kapiti Island for birds and Matiu/Somes and Mana for giant weta. Also to Tiritiri Matangi for stitchbirds and saddlebacks, Ward Island for frogs and Stephens Island for tuatara.
Are the transfers your favourite part of the job?
I love the transfers, but they can be challenging. You've got a whole lot of responsibility to keep the birds alive and make sure they are released. I love to observe the animals after the transfer. Watching them breed and nest . . . all the behaviour that goes on.
What was your favourite trip?
One trip that stands out was a month I spent in the Cook Islands as a volunteer. I went with three other women and we were studying the kingfisher over there. We got around on bikes, worked with the locals, located nests, learnt about a new species and came back and wrote a paper on it. We stayed on a little offshore island where tourists didn't go.
Has conservation changed?
People have learnt a lot in the time I have been involved. In 1996 I co-ordinated the eradication of pests from Kapiti Island. Before that we did about five years' worth of studies to see if it was even possible. At the time it was 10 times bigger than any other island that had had rats removed. Now things have gone beyond that. Bigger islands are rat free and the technology we have now wasn't even thought of 10 years ago. Even Zealandia was a leap forward. It was the first fenced restoration project on the mainland designed to keep mammals out.
What was a memorable project for you?
Helping save the black robin stands out. It was a dream come true for me to go over to the Chatham Islands and be involved. When I joined, the department had pulled it back from just one mating black robin pair. However, we were still doing the cross- fostering programme. We manipulated nests so we could get as many robin chicks as possible each season. We took robin eggs and put them in tomtit nests, then put them back just before they hatched. It was very intense but we learnt some wonderful skills.
What's your objection to domestic cats?
Our birds go into people's backyards and we have people who bring them back and tell us their cat got it. We have people who tell us they don't always bring the birds because they think we will get rid of their cat. But that's not true. I'm just keen to raise the awareness of the situation.
If we want birds in our backyards and to spread out over the community, there can't be cats. We don't have to get rid of them, but I think cats will become indoor animals. I've had a cat myself and I have a dog. I didn't replace my cat because I'm a neighbour to Zealandia, so I had to practise what I preached.
Zealandia's finances have been in the news lately. Why do you think it's worth a visit?
It's definitely worth it. It's so different and it recharges the soul. We have such a lovely landscape here. You can see the lakes, the trees, the birds, listen to all the bird song. It's just wonderful. I come in on the weekend as a volunteer because I don't get enough of it during the week. For me, money just doesn't enter into it. When you compare it with similar projects around the world and New Zealand, it's not expensive. And there are more opportunities if people become members and that's even cheaper.
What do you do in your spare time?
I haven't got a lot of time for hobbies lately, if you put aside the voluntary work I do and my family. I'm looking forward to having a bit more leisure time and trying out more of the activities available in Wellington. I would love to get back into kayaking.
- The Wellingtonian