Volunteer at DOC: Julian Möhlen

Department of Conservation —  26/06/2015

By Cornelia Vervoorn, Partnerships Ranger in Franz Josef

Julian Möhlen holding a kiwi catch bag.

Julian Möhlen

Have you ever thought that you would like to volunteer with DOC, but you’re not sure you have the right sort of experience? As you’ll see, enthusiasm and passion are the most important things you can bring to volunteering.

Julian Möhlen had finished high school in Vienna, Austria, and was about to begin a combined degree in psychology, philosophy and linguistics at Oxford University. Before beginning to grapple with Freud, Wittgenstein and Chomsky, he thought he’d take some time out to travel and do some volunteering. He fell in love with New Zealand while backpacking, and decided to see how he could help out with conservation work.

Julian began by helping out with pest and weed control in the Waitakere Ranges, gaining experience in off-track work in the New Zealand bush. He then applied to volunteer with the rowi project in Franz Josef.

Julian mentioned that he was very confident walking long hours with a pack each day. This was definitely a big plus for us, as the kiwi sanctuary can be pretty rough going.

We invited Julian to come and volunteer with the project for about a month. In the end, however, Julian proved so enthusiastic and helpful that he stayed for two months, and was a great asset to the project.

Julian Möhlen holding a rowi kiwi.

Julian Möhlen with a rowi kiwi

So, what was his volunteering experience like? We’ll let Julian tell you all about it himself:

What did you do while you were in your volunteer role?

•  Changing rowi transmitters
•  Planting native trees in the Wahapo wetland
•  Changing rowi and tokoeka harnesses on Motuara Island
•  Releasing tokoeka in the Haast Sanctuary
•  Helping with the day-to-day work at the kiwi nursery in Okarito
•  Small mammal indexing and stoat trapping

What was the work like?

The work I did was incredibly interesting because it was all about protecting New Zealand wildlife in the unique West Coast region.

Do you feel you’ve made a difference to conservation?

The contribution this work makes to conservation in New Zealand is significant!

Saving an endemic bird species, of such high cultural profile as the rowi and Haast tokoeka kiwis, does not compare to other projects.

How hard is it to get involved in this kind of volunteer work?

It’s very easy. As a volunteer you can work on a regular on-and-off basis and help with planting native forest for example or—given the necessary backcountry skills—kiwi work at peak times.

As a person with a few weeks (or even a few months) to spare you can become a long term volunteer and delve into serious conservation work.

DOC is very supportive in helping you find accommodation, inviting you to social activities and arranging lots of other resources you will seek and value.

Rowi kiwi claw during a health check up.

Dragon feet or a rowi kiwi claw?

Why did you get involved in volunteering with DOC?

I wanted to contribute to the conservation of a country whose beauty I was able to enjoy so much as a backpacker.

What was the most interesting thing you learnt while volunteering?

Firstly, how you navigate through and work in very thick but stunningly beautiful native forest. And secondly, it was enthralling to learn about all the different views on conservation that you can find within DOC—all the different reasons why people bother giving their time to nature.

What was the scariest moment you had while volunteering?

The scariest was when I drove back from the kiwi nursery in Okarito to Franz Josef. I had been signed off for driving DOC vehicles and this meant there was a lot of trust placed in me. I just came around a corner on the highway when I saw right in my lane, a few dozens of metres ahead, an emu unwilling to move! I braked hard and stopped, just in time not to knock the petrified bird over.

It took both the emu and me a while to recover. The rest of the way back home I saw newspaper headlines flashing through my head “Local attraction dead! German tourist runs over famous Franz Josef emu in DOC vehicle” or, more hopefully, “European saviour of native wildlife. DOC Volunteer gloriously kills emu, introduced from Australia”.

Emu. Photo: Kiwi Flickr | CC BY 2.0.


What was the strangest moment you had while volunteering?

The strangest moment was when I was checking some stoat traps on an old forestry road network. I had decided to borrow another a ranger’s bike because it was a fine day, the road is hardly used and I did not want to stop, turn off and jump out of a car every hundred metres.

I was making good progress and was in a remarkably good mood when – at the furthest point possible from my truck – the bike’s chain and wheels blocked! I got off and examined the damage. The derailleur was bent and caught in the back wheel (I did not even know that this was possible). After ten minutes of ambitious repair trials I gave up, hid the bike in the bush and pulled my backpack tight. I had to walk about an hour back to my car – in gumboots.

But then, just when I passed the first turn I saw in the warm afternoon light an old granny sitting on a stool in the middle of a junction spinning her wool. I could not believe my eyes! I was in the middle of nowhere, on some dead-end former forestry road and there was help – a lady with her tiny car. Her first comment when she saw me was about the “goddamn peace and silence” that I had disturbed (at least this is what I heard). But she gave me a ride back to my truck all the same and I thanked her for saving my day.

What inspires or enthuses you most about being a volunteer?

That you get in touch with some very inspiring people and get a chance to delve into a field of work that you could not experience otherwise.

If you could be any New Zealand native species, what would you be?

I’d be a kahikatea. One must feel superb as such a proud, tall tree.

Franz Josef kiwi pen.

Franz Josef kiwi pen

What conservation advice would you give to New Zealanders?

Brake for kiwi, accelerate for possums and emus! Seriously though, I would encourage New Zealanders to get out there, experience your awesome wildlife, and get aware about the threats to it! Build your personal vision of future Aotearoa nature and then pursue it ambitiously.