Flying in to save flightless birds

Biodiversity Ranger Cassie Mealey talks about her work with some of New Zealand’s rarest kiwis.                                   

The Haast tokoeka is one of the rarest species of kiwi occurring in the Haast ranges of southern New Zealand. Here, on behalf of the governmental Department of Conservation, Cassie battles steep mountains, temperamental weather conditions and a dodgy phone signal in an attempt to safeguard the few hundred remaining birds. 

A ‘typical’ day at the office

“I could be getting a helicopter ride to the mountain top, or a jet boat ride inland. Then I’ll hike with my pack and radio tracker and try and find a Kiwi. Right now, we’re mostly just monitoring so I’ll take some measurements, check their health, things like that… I’ve also been involved in the translocation of birds to other sites. There was a situation at the end of last year where it was very dry in Haast. Now Haast is a place which typically gets about 7 meters of rain a year, 7 meters, and it didn’t rain for about three weeks straight. It meant invertebrates – the kiwi’s primary food supply – moved deeper into the soil and the kiwi chicks’ bills weren’t long enough to reach them. They were starving. So, we had to extract them from the wild and take them over to the East Coast, where there was more rain and food. Then once the chicks are old enough we will bring them back. In general, the work is pretty varied.”

Living conditions

“Sometimes I stay out in the mountains but usually I’m in Haast. I’ve got a little, single man-shack that used to house the miners when they came through. Living room/bedroom combined, kitchen and a bathroom, it’s all really small but I kinda like it, does leak when it rains though… It’s funny, Haast has been called the most isolated town in New Zealand. You need to drive about two hours for anything, including phone reception. I have friends say ‘I’ll come visit you, text me your address and I’ll call you when I get there’ and I’m like ‘uh… yeah… you can’t’.”

Growing up in Australia, Cassie was classed as a ‘birdo’. Initially she was determined to become a vet, until one talked her out of it during a two-week work placement when she was 16. Perhaps he could see then that her passion for wild animals was better suited to a career in wildlife conservation or perhaps she was just a really bad assistant. Either way, after briefly going through an ‘I want to be a pilot’ phase, Cassie settled on biology and conservation.

What key steps have you taken?

“I acquired a fair bit of volunteer experience early on and just spent a lot of time outside. Familiarising myself with hiking, camping, navigation etc. all proved useful later on. Academically I did a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and then, after working locally for a little while, I undertook a PGDip in Endangered Species Recovery in Mauritius. I think the Mauritius course was a big step, the experience over there was amazing, we learnt such a variety of things both theoretical and then putting it into practice across a wide range of species.”

On getting this job…

“Working in small groups in remote and likely harsh/testing conditions calls for a strong motivated team who can support each other. My background in bird handling complemented the skill set they already had. I also mentioned in the interview that I really like board games and it turned out my team mates are made about them too! So it was just a good fit.”

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Cassie learning in Mauritius... I've been reassured she wasn’t about to kick this seabird off the cliff as the position of her boot and gleeful expression may suggest.

Cassie learning in Mauritius… I’ve been reassured she wasn’t about to kick this seabird off the cliff as the position of her boot and gleeful expression may suggest.

Advice for others

“From my experience I’d say try and identify what is going to be a key skill or asset for the career you want and get practical experience in it. For me it was animal handling. If you can pick a useful skill and become really good at it – telemetry, trapping, data management etc. – this can become your selling point to get you into a paid position. Also networking, meet people in the field, get your name out there.”

Expectations of the field vs reality

“I’ve come to realise that being a conservationist is almost synonymous with being uncomfortable. A lot of my work is hard; hiking up mountains with a really heavy pack on, bush bashing for hours trying to find a kiwi and then chasing it around when I do. Sometimes I won’t get one and I’ll have to trek all the way back without any data at all. And of course, you’re usually cold, wet and muddy. Probably bruised too from falling over so many times.”

What keeps you going when times are hard?

“Optimism…The hope that we can find balance between the natural and man-made worlds. Other than that, my team – the people I work with – and the general wonder and amazement I have for the kiwi. Plus I get to ride helicopters to work!”

Well there you have it. For further information on the Haast tokoeka please type the words ‘Haast tokoeka’ into your preferred search engine and if you want to hear more from Cassie, you can find her chasing kiwis about 33km west of Shattered Peak…. Just don’t bother calling ahead.

By Patrick Pester BSc, PGDip. “Working in Wildlife Conservation and occasionally writing about it. If I wanted a stable career I would have become a horse…”

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