During my trek, I talked to Ann Graeme, a conservationist with the Royal Forest and Bird Society. She took some time to talk to me and answer questions that students sent to me by e-mail.
What is your job as a conservationist? Describe a typical day.
My main job is writing for the Royal Forest and Bird Society's magazine. I also organize the 20 kiwi conservation clubs we have across the country. Most of the time, I sit at my word processor thinking up stories about kiwis, wekas, and other endangered wildlife. I also answer questions from the children.
Do you only work to preserve birds, or all animals? What are some specific animals you're involved with?
The Royal Forest and Bird Society was formed 75 years ago to protect birds and trees, but now we realize that conservation involves protecting the environment around the animals, or their habitat. Protecting worms, snails, insects, and plants is just as important as looking after the more spectacular creatures. I am involved in breeding North Island wekas, birds which eat lizards and other birds' eggs. Wekas are very rare; we are releasing them onto islands that have no stoats or parrots (predators that prey on wekas).
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Why are kiwi birds found only in New Zealand?
The ancestors of kiwis were on the land that split away from an ancient continent called Gondwanaland. The kiwis evolved only in New Zealand because of the special conditions here. There were no mammals such as porcupines or hedgehogs here, and the kiwis evolved to do what those animals do in other places, such as forage around for worms and insects.
Have you ever held a kiwi bird?
No, I've never held a kiwi. I've only seen them running away very fast into the bush at night! Kiwi are wild animals and should only be held if there is a real need to — such as if they are trapped or need to be taken care of when injured.
Where do you work on protecting the kiwi birds?
In the Coromandel Peninsula (across from the Bay of Plenty in the North Island), we are involved in setting traps for ferrets and possums. The ferrets are predators of the kiwi, and the possums are damaging the forests where kiwis live. My main job is educating people about keeping their dogs out of the bush (the native vegetation). The scent of a kiwi is irresistible to dogs, and many kiwis are killed by dogs each year.
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Are kids in New Zealand really worried about saving kiwi birds? How are they working to save them?
To judge from the letters we get, kids in New Zealand are very worried about the kiwi disappearing. We are trying to make the kids aware of what threatens the kiwi, such as burning scrub land (land with native vegetation that's not used for farming). The biggest threat, though, comes from people's dogs. If kids make sure their dogs don't go off into the bush, that is a great way to save kiwi.
What animals do kids in New Zealand like best?
The kiwi birds are the favorite, but kids are also interested in the weka, as we have a character in our magazine called "Willie Weka." Interestingly, they also like things like wetas, the cricket-like insects we have over here. It's good that they realize the creatures that aren't cute and cuddly are also important.
Do kiwi birds have anything to do with kiwi fruit? Do they eat kiwi fruit?
Kiwi birds have nothing to do with kiwi fruit. People in New Zealand are called kiwis, after the kiwi birds, which is a national emblem. When the Chinese gooseberry was grown over here, its name was changed to kiwi fruit to show it came from New Zealand. Kiwi birds eat worms, grubs, and insects on the forest floor; they don't touch kiwi fruit.
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What endangered animal in New Zealand do you personally care most about? Why?
That's a difficult question! There are a heap of endangered animals in New Zealand and all are important. I do have a soft spot for wekas. Many other conservationists don't like wekas because they prey on other birds' eggs, but I find them interesting characters. We breed them for release on islands, and are trying to increase their numbers, as they have almost disappeared in many areas.
What did you study in school? How did you become a conservationist?
At school I studied science, math, chemistry, and physics, which I found very difficult, but very useful for my work as a scientist. I also studied biology, which is my favorite subject. I taught science and first become involved in conservation when we fought to stop a local mangrove swamp from being drained and filled in.
What problems are there with conservation in New Zealand?
New Zealand is an unusual place. The people over here, including the children, are very aware of the need for conservation, but this country is one of the most difficult places to save native wildlife. The plants and animals evolved in isolation and couldn't adapt to the sudden introduction of mammal predators. It's a big problem. Hopefully, technology will help us. One plan is to feed drugs to possums that will stop them from breeding. There are some clever ideas out there and hopefully we can maintain the wildlife that makes New Zealand so special.
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