A most interesting and well-informed treatment of some of the pressing issues in Conservation, including how Māori values can inform and extend Western practices, together with a few ideas on how to make successful job applications, developing self-confidence, and making the most of vacation periods.
The Road to an Unusual Post
Taylor Davies-Colley is a Science Communicator and Educator at the Orokanui Ecosanctuary. He graduated from Otago with a Masters degree in Botany in 2021. Having spent his early years in Whangarei, he commented on the Dunedin weather, (the day was particularly cold, with a maximum of 7℃, and snow on the hills), noting that his parents had phoned saying it was really cold in Whangarei, where it was 20℃ and they had lit a fire! Embarking on a Botany and Ecology degree at Otago in 2014, before his Masters, his choice was probably most influenced by his parents’ interests in both gardening and forestry, so that he spent a good deal of time in those environments when younger. Coming to University without much knowledge of what was available he took a broad area of study in first year, and found he really enjoyed Botany, and so embarked on majors in Botany and Ecology. The latter enabled him to study a wide variety of papers including some Marine Science, and recommended paper “GEOG 272, which is a fossils paper - good fun!”
Following a summer internship with Northern Regional Council monitoring water quality, he told us:
“Most internships around the country have just opened, so f you’re looking for something to do in the summer I really recommend doing something like that, they are awesome fun.” [Later in his talk Taylor mentioned that they had hired him because he put down that he had milked cows at High School, and this indicated to the panel that he ‘could actually do something’, everyone else having simply put down their qualifications. Always include in an application such things as volunteer work, responsibilities, even field trips you have undertaken, etc.].
Carnivorous Plants and Water Quality
At the time he began his Masters, the Department was just embarking on a research project into the highly threatened carnivorous aquatic plant, the Bladderwort Utricularia australis. This has traps consisting of tiny bladders in which negative pressure is created by removing the water from inside them, and a trigger mechanism consisting of a mechanically unstable door. When activated, the trap is sprung very swiftly, at a speed of 8 to 9 milliseconds, a good deal faster than the blink of an eye. (It takes 200-400 milliseconds for us to blink).
His thesis was concerned with the effect man’s activities have had on water quality, suchas nitrate and phosphorous content, that might affect these plants with a view to establishing thresholds, providing management information to some Councils and Iwi groups. A complication of management is the presence of aquifer-fed lakes, where the lake water originates from underground. Control measures such as planting pines along the bank work when the water is feeding in through watercourses such as streams, but not with aquifer-fed lakes.
While pursuing his Masters, Taylor also became involved with the AAPES organisation (Animal, Aquatic, Plant and Ecological Society1 Vice-President Ben Carson) which “was the start of all those things I am involved with now.” AAPES did indeed get him involved in several other things, such as Wild Dunedin Festival of Nature” (https://wilddunedin.nz/a/UzIbwM5)
In the process, Taylor became more and more interested in “the biggest issue we have in Conservation is the social aspect of it. How do we encourage people to take action to change their behaviours? What’s the value of saving all these Kākāpō, when some people in Aotearoa don’t know don’t know what a Tūī is?” He became more and more involved in this, including engaging with the community at large, and the education of children at Orokonui. The upshot is that Taylor is now almost full time at Orokonui in those endeavours.
Later in his talk Taylor was asked about any challenges he had met in “trying to communicate these huge issues to such a large number of people?” The primary one was developing self-confidence. When at University he felt like a nonentity surrounded by “super intelligent” Academic staff, some of whom were world renowned. He came to realise that high intelligence does not necessarily mean one will be a good communicator, and also that people are generally willing to listen, even if you don’t have a Ph.D. or are old!
Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a 307 hectare area about 20 kilometres from Dunedin, around which is a 9 kilometre predator-resistant fence. Inside is maintained wildlife that is “terribly threatened, and very sensitive to introduced predators, things like Takahē, Kākā, lizards that don’t exist anywhere else, tuatara, etc.” It is open to the public Saturday to Monday, 9.30 am to 4.30 pm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orokonui_Ecosanctuary).
He expanded on the significance of his child education work in answer to a question, he talked about the emphasis on preserving our most threatened species, such as the Kākāpō. While accepting the importance of this, and noting the remarkable increase from 51 Kākāpō in 1995 to 252 today, [https://www.doc.govt.nz/kakapo-recovery], this has come at considerable financial cost, and it will still be a very long time before most New Zealanders get to see one. Birds that are seen all over Dunedin, such as Tūī and Korimako/Bellbirds are not recognised by many people, who certainly will not know what a Kākāpō looks like, nor likely understand what the conservation issues are. ”So how are we going to get them involved with conservation generally? . . . Everyone deserves the right to connect with conservation and connect with nature.” [And there is masses of evidence of the value to mental well-being of connecting with nature e.g https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201801/why-connecting-nature-elevates-your-mental-health - Ed]
“And we’ve got to break that down, and even though we want to work at the forefront, the most extreme side of conservation, we’ve got to reel it back, and say ‘These are some birds that you might see in your garden, and these are things you can do to help.’ So even those people who are short of time, money or knowledge, can still contribute.”
Another question was about taking groups around Orokonui to see the rare species there, how much weight was given to other species that you might see in you back garden. Taylor noted that people tended to be interested in things like Kiwi and Kākāpō, less so in skinks or spiders - and mentioned a rare spider only found in a couple of caves near Nelson. “We do try to focus on everything (not just the charismatic ones) so when these kids go back to school or their back yard and they see something, they realise that it is also wildlife, not just the rare ones.” Invertebrates are particularly good, because they can be found in so many places, also the common birds. Sometimes he is approached in town by a child who tells him they have found ‘this insect’ when going out at night into the back yard with a torch. “That’s exactly what we want. “
There is more than one pathway to be undertaking the kind of education he does, in fact at one time Taylor thought research would be where he ended up, but when he tried it doing his Master’s degree, he realised it was not where his main interest lay. He started doing a little teaching, found he enjoyed that, and slowly took on more till he reached his present situation. Taylor also told us about people who had done a Master’s in Teaching, and someone he knows who had been a field ecologist for 30 years, then moved into education. “Be looking out for opportunities, and make the most of them. Sometimes people only look for opportunities that are upwards, then there are are many opportunities you might not then see as beneficial, but might turn out to connect you to something that is. There are all these networks that you can build that open up more opportunities. Things like AAPES are really good. If you’ve got time, volunteer for different organisations, do things like Summer Studentships - each University Department generally has quite a few. Each Regional Council takes on at least five students a year for summer work. It gets you connections and skills, and all sorts of things.”
Taylor responded to another question about subject selection by noting the ‘slight tension’ between Botanists and Zoologists that arises because, in Conservation, the bulk of funding will go to birds and marine animals, then invertebrates, with plants at the bottom of the heap. But, as an undergraduate, he had connected better with Botany papers, “not necessarily the content, but the style. I was getting better marks and enjoying the papers more. . . . . .That was what was going to get me through University. Sometimes you have to make decisions like that - and I’m not despondent about it, because there are very few Botanists, so the career choices are actually quite good, because everyone needs them, but there are very few of them. . . . Botany has taken me to some cool places, like Stewart Island . . helicoptered up to Alpine wetlands to look at them . . crystal clear lakes on the peninsula at the top of the North Island”.
Staying Upbeat, Maintaining Progress
On the subject of remaining upbeat in the face of the effect of such things as climate change and human intervention on conservation, Taylor observed first of all that some species are lost. He mentioned the 2,000 known species of spider in New Zealand and the further 2,000 that have not yet even been described, some of which are likely to become extinct before we even know of their existence. Things like the Hoiho penguin are likely to be lost from the mainland within 10 years “unless we get really lucky and do some phenomenal conservation.” But on the plus side, some amazing things have been achieved, like the Kākāpō - “Yes, that had phenomenal amounts of money to do it, but it shows that we can. A lot of our native species have had phenomenal recoveries - we discovered just in the last couple of days that pakake (previously Hooker’s sealion) have had their first year in 30 years when their pup numbers haven’t been less than the year before.” A small win, maybe, but by looking at the successes we have had, and rejecting the option of doing nothing, the only way is by “bringing positive solutions, bringing meaningful ideas to the conversation, when you are talking about people who maybe don’t realise that their cats [may kill birds], or don’t realise their own effect on climate change, or don’t realise this or that, the information is out there . . . so the problem is more of a social one than a scientific one.” Treating such people as having a part to play in this, and providing them with meaningful solutions, meaningful steps they can take, is really the only thing we can do. . . . . We’ve managed to get the majority of people on board, and societal pressures are pushing the stragglers in our direction, anyway.”
What About the Weekend Shooters?
One member raised the issue that “everyone appears to be out at the weekend shooting things”, and how did that sit with most people being on the side of conservation? “A lot of conservation involves killing animals.” Taylor pointed out that New Zealand’s deep ecological history features only bats as mammals, and all the other mammals here have been introduced and generally cause problems. “Stoats, weasels. ferrets, three rat species, deer, pigs, goats - even wild sheep and goats sometimes. Apart from Climate Change and habitat loss, these introduced mammals are the biggest threat to our biodiversity . . . People introduced them, it’s up to people to get rid of them.” - Which prompted a question about a growing school of thought that we should protect these introduced species.
In response, Taylor talked about ‘short-generation species’ that have adapted quickly to life in New Zealand, developing genetic changes accordingly. If they aren’t causing harm “I see no point in focussing on them, because we’ve got limited resources.” But there may be an issue of preserving the genetics of native New Zealand species which have similarities to overseas species. He alluded to the issue of hedgehogs, which are dying out in England, but there are lots in New Zealand. Is it right to eradicate them here knowing that they may then become extinct? “I don’t have a good answer to that one - which is always fun! But it is a really good thought, particularly here in Aotearoa, where we can get focussed on indigenous versus exotic, you’ll often hear people saying ‘get rid of all non-native plants and animals. Which would cripple our agricultural system, because we don’t eat any native things . . . .but they are part of the cultural history of this country, and may also become part of our ecological history. There are thousands of exotic trees out there, but there are lots of native birds in them . . .(and) they play a really big role in the conservation of our native birds.”
A member asked about the possibility of sending hedgehogs back from here to England, but there are problems in that. One is the cost, another that they have become genetically different, and a third is that they carry a few diseases which are not a problem at this stage in England. - Which prompted another question. about different attitudes to possums between New Zealand and Australia, where they are a protected species. “
One thing we have to be very careful of is that we have almost demonised introduced mammals. “You’ll be in a car with someone, and they will swerve to the other side of the road and almost kill everyone, just so they can tap a possum with the wheel. And then that possum suffers a slow death. I’m all for trapping and poisoning, but I think we have to be so careful that we don’t lose our humanity, and start treating an animal as not an animal.” To illustrate this he talked of an incident in a school in the North where a large number of possums were culled, and the children were taking the joeys out of the female possums and drowning them in a bucket of water. “We need to be really careful about that in becoming predator free, that we aren’t bringing up a generation of kids (who think) these animals are evil, these are good. - And how far that goes into their beliefs on other things is really dangerous, especially when some of the messaging around predator-free can be xenophobic at times.”
Some Other Key Issues in Conservation
Asked about any other key issues with regard to the operation of ‘predator-free’, Taylor said one that made him feel uncomfortable was “any reference to removal of these introduced predators as a ‘war’. It isn’t a war. War is a horrific, horrific thing, and this is just us doing Ecology.” Another one is the real problem of the Western conservation practices not necessarily the pinnacle of Conservation, and there is a place for Mātauranga Māori (Māori traditional knowledge - see for example https://epa.govt.nz/community-involvement/science-corner/matauranga-Māori/). For example, in Aotearoa one third of the land is locked up in Public Conservation Land (PLC), where the conservation of nature is maintained according to Western principles (Conservation Act 1987). “It’s very mismanaged. Part of the reason for that is that it is locked away - you can’t do anything with it. You have to get a permit to do anything except walk through it. The Mātauranga Māori perspective is about protecting these places, but also about living within them, utilising them. What can we get out of those areas that contribute positively? “Yes, we might harvest some Kererū, but . . we have to have enough of them, in a good habitat, that harvesting them is not going to cause their population to decline.” [Surely this is essentially ‘sustainability’. - Ed.]. “That is going to be a really important part of Conservation in the next steps, but I think it’s going to be a really interesting communications issue, because a lot of people - apart from the people who are genuinely racist - don’t think that Western science should be questioned in that way.” Asked to elaborate on some of those points, Taylor said that by ‘harvesting’ he meant killing and eating, which is in direct contrast to locking areas of land away and not allowing anyone to use them in any way. In contrast Te Nohoaka o Tukiauau (the Sinclair Wetlands, near Dunedin) is Iwi managed. “One of our biggest, most valuable Conservation project, here in Dunedin, is a phenomenal Wetland restoration.” Many plants are harvested from it, also tuna - but they are all regenerating at a high rate because they are actively being managed in a positive way.” On his use of the term ‘incompatible’ in respect of views on Conservation: “Māori have a desire to harvest wild life - which they have a right to, and have done so for 1000 years. The way it’s not compatible is that everyone wants to get to the same point, where both groups want thousands of Kererū, but Māori also want to harvest them. It is going to be challenging for a lot of people.” [Although this Kereru harvesting is not essentially different from a well-managed fishery - remove a proportion for human consumption, but leave enough for population maintenance. Common sense, really. There is a clear distinction between highly threatened species which need total protection, and non-threatened species in which a sensible balance can be maintained. - Ed].
1(Animal, Aquatic, Plant and Ecological Society) Otago can be found on the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AAPESOtago/ or on the OUSA website https://www.ousa.org.nz/clubsandsocs/clubs/clubs-list/animal-aquatic-plant-ecological-society-