Working as a zookeeper for the past 15 years, I admit to asking myself on more than one occasion whether I am really making a difference for wildlife. Am I really contributing to the overall conservation of this species? Those in the zookeeper profession all desperately hope so, which is why we continue to devote our lives to this occupation. We are immensely rewarded when an animal we work with comes back to full health after struggling with a debilitating disease, or when a new baby is born at our facility, or even when a new enrichment device provides loads of engagement and fun for our animals. But having the ability to impact species in the wild, for me, has meant the realization of a significant lifetime goal as a career zookeeper.
Well the great news is that our Cincinnati Zoo IS MAKING A HUGE DIFFERENCE FOR WILDLIFE! Many of you already know this as you’ve followed the Zoo’s success stories of Gladys (the adopted gorilla baby), Fiona (the preemie hippo), Taffy (the flamingo chick hatched on Facebook live), and more. But did you know about the role the Zoo plays in conservation around the world as well? Of the many great conservation initiatives the Zoo is involved in, the project nearest to my heart as a bird keeper is that of the kea and the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT).
The kea (Nestor notabilis) is the world’s only alpine parrot, found solely on the South Island of New Zealand. Here at the Zoo, we are home to the largest kea flock in all of North America. Every day, I am inspired by the charisma, curious and inquisitive nature, intelligence, and never-ending comical and mischievous behaviors of this foot-tall, olive-green parrot.
The Zoo has supported the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT) for several years, and I recently had the opportunity to visit the South Island of New Zealand to see firsthand, the amazing progress this group of passionate conservationists has been making with our support.
Catching Up with KCT’s Conflict Coordinator
Funds from the Zoo have supported KCT’s Kea-Community Conflict Response Plan for the past few years. This is a multi-year, community-focused, conflict response and resolution program that is run by Andrea Goodman, the Kea Conflicts Coordinator. When a kea is sitting on top of someone’s roof, screaming at 3:00AM, it is the Andrea who takes the call. When a logging company has complaints that curious kea are mauling the wiring on their backhoes, Andrea takes the call. When local residents find holes chewed in their soft rubber bike seats, windshield wipers or mesh on their children’s trampolines, Andrea takes the call.
I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Andrea to get a feel for how she handles these kea conflict situations. When conflicts arise, she provides an empathetic ear, share information on kea ecology, and teaches folks important techniques to keep kea from damaging their property. Her suggestions range from easy solutions like running sprinklers overnight and covering bike seats with a tarp or bucket. Once people are educated about the status of kea and their vulnerability for the future, they commonly become the strongest advocates for kea. Andrea is extremely passionate and dedicated to kea conservation. Seeing firsthand how many kea conflict calls and emails she tackles a day, I was absolutely impressed and humbled by her dedication.
Partnership with Forestry Industry
The second incredible feat that Andrea and the KCT have accomplished is a unique partnership with the forestry industry on the South Island. It is no surprise that an industry working with millions of acres of alpine forest in the country would have frequent run-ins with the cheeky and sometimes destructive kea. Downtime from kea-damaged equipment causes productivity loss. Working side by side with the KCT, the New Zealand Forestry Association developed a set of Kea Forestry Guidelines. These guidelines inform forestry crews as to what to do when keas are present in their logging areas. This partnership has proved vital in helping the logging teams minimize kea impact on their equipment, as well as minimizing destruction to kea nest sites by logging crews. As of this spring, four different companies have adopted these guidelines as protocol for working in kea habitats.
KCT has launched an amazing new citizen science program to monitor kea populations and activity. When hikers, bikers, trampers, travelers or virtually anyone sees a kea, they can document the sighting in the KeaDatabase. I made several entries into the database during my trip. For every wild kea I saw, I recorded the color of its leg band, sex, group size, and estimated age.
With this data, KCT will gain a better understanding of how far and where kea move, how many new birds are recruited into the population each year, and much more. Curious hikers in wild kea country can also learn more about the individual birds they see by logging in and looking up their unique ID bands. Here in Cincinnati, we plan to add our keas’ leg bands into the KeaDatabase as well, so visitors to the Zoo can easily look up their names, hatch date, and personality traits. This in turn links our visitors to information on wild kea and ways they can help.
Kea Konvention 2017
KCT recently convened a 3-day meeting with key stakeholders in attendance to discuss kea conservation, and I was lucky enough to be there to participate. Attendees included the NZ Department of Conservation, local logging companies, biologists, researchers, local wildlife rehabbers, members of the Zoo & Aquarium Association, and more. Topics included: wild population estimates, new kea monitoring technologies, threat mitigation, kea cognition and conflict resolution. I was impressed with the passion New Zealanders have for their environment and wildlife. Many of them were volunteers, spending their own time and money to be there. Their passion and activism made me realize there is so much more each of us can do to be involved in our own communities. Many new ideas were discussed at the conference, and I look forward to seeing those implemented in the future.
Coming Up: South Island Advocacy Tour
The KCT’s South Island winter advocacy tour has been run annually since 2008. During the 10-12 day tour, the KCT team connects directly with South Island communities. Every year they have a different theme with a presentation providing up to date information about threats to kea and efforts to protect them. This is followed by discussions, to find out from communities about local concerns and interests.
The tour theme this year, The Power of Community, will look at how NZ communities are getting together to save kea here and overseas, and will also look at international species examples for inspiration. They will also invite someone from each of the communities they visit to tell the story of how they are helping local kea, and then discuss ways in which others may get involved in local kea conservation initiatives.
From what I have seen, this outstanding, passionate group of folks at KCT is right on task, taking a multi-faceted approach to wildlife conservation. I say, kudos to them! And to all the many groups of conservation warriors, out there fighting for their species survival. I am extremely proud to be a part of this successful conservation project.
Come see the kea for yourself! Check out the kea flight display on cool days this summer to see some of the crazy antics of our juvenile flock of kea. Currently, we have daily encounters at 11:30 am during which the birds are provided with puzzles, sprinklers, pools and toys so you can see them in action. And don’t forget to come see us at our Kea Encounters during Festival of Lights this winter, when you can come inside the aviary for an up close encounters with these amazing birds!