Jobs at DOC: Rogan Colbourne, Technical Advisor

Department of Conservation —  16/10/2015

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile Rogan Colbourne, Technical Advisor.

At work

Some things I do in my job include:

I’m a member of a group of dedicated conservationists from different fields making up the Kiwi Recovery Group. There are about 92 community groups actively involved in kiwi restoration, and I provide advice and assistance to them.

While it might seem that a lot of time and money is spent on kiwi, when a community protects kiwi they’re also protecting other native fauna.

rogan-c-1980-with-kiwi

The start of my kiwi career in 1980 – I’m still able to run after and catch kiwi in spite of calls to begin succession planning

I also run two kiwi conservation dogs, Abbie (a yellow labrador) and Jade (an Irish setter) who’s one of the country’s only night-certified kiwi dogs. While dogs are bad news to kiwi in some parts of the country, trained dogs have helped us find out where kiwi are, what they do and how to manage them.

The Kiwi Recovery Group in 2014.

The Kiwi Recovery Group in 2014

This helps the DOC’s vision by:

Ensuring that we will have healthy populations of kiwi for many generations to come, and the rest of the world will look on our conservation efforts with envy.

The best bit about my job is:

Improving the survival prospects of kiwi (and other fauna) by dreaming up innovative methods to bypass the predation problem that besieges kiwi.

One example is Operation Nest Egg, where chicks are physically removed from stoats until they reach 1200 grams (when they can fight back) and they are returned to their natal area.

This has been quite a success but I am now working on three other lesser known programmes:

• Changing the behaviour of kiwi to fight back on their own. Training camps select extra aggressive kiwi to act as sentries so if dogs, stoats or humans approach they will drive away the intruder. Fiordland tokoeka are the preferred species as they are the sumos of the kiwi world.

• Tortoises carry their defences on their backs. Observing the same principle, we’ve provided armour to kiwi in Northland where dog attacks have reduced the average adult kiwi life expectancy from 40-50 years to only 13 years. It’s working well. The next prototype was to have metal nails protruding outwards (hedgehog model) but as kiwi mating (hence productivity) could suffer, we’ve pulled the plug.

• Finally, (and this is a little hush hush because genetic engineering was involved), we selected the biggest kiwi we could find so when their chicks hatched they were large enough to ward off stoats and ferrets. Unfortunately, a few Auckland people disappeared in the vicinity of the trials so we discreetly pulled the funding.

The scariest/awesome-est DOC moment I’ve had so far is:

Ian Flux and I were catching kiwi on the banks of Lock Marie in Dusky Sound around midnight when we decided to take a shortcut, wading up to above our knees, to avoid thick vegetation on the banks.

Suddenly we spied one of the biggest long finned eels we had ever seen only a metre away from us. It was probably two and a half metres long and 20 centimetres wide at the head. What really terrified us was its big brother a metre behind – and almost twice as big!

This was my first encounter with a taniwha and there may be talk of exaggeration, but in land-locked lakes with wild fowl to feed on these creatures can reach incredible sizes.

Here’s a YouTube video of an eel in Foxton that gives an idea of how they can grow – and that was a little one!

The DOC (or previous DOC) employee that inspires or enthuses me most is:

Mike Imber. A man who had incredible knowledge of seabirds and other fauna and who, with quiet humour, ignored all the bureaucracy put in his way to help bring back from extinction some of New Zealand’s rarest taonga.

On a personal note

Most people don’t know that:

I was the first person in a hundred years to see, handle and band a taiko chick. Unfortunately that bird has never returned to its natal area but I am living in hope that it’s breeding in a very remote and secret part of the Chathams.

I also claim to be the very first person to have mowed my lawn this century! I was looking for something to be famous for, so at the turn of the millennium while people were worrying that the world would end, I started up my mower on the stroke of midnight. Well, each to their own!

In my spare time:

I get withdrawal symptoms when not working with animals at work. So at home I breed pure bred highland cattle (I now have 16 – anyone want to buy a pet?), suri alpacas, ducks and heritage breeds of chickens. I very occasionally breed labrador retrievers (including a national champion) but that takes up a lot of time.

The song that always cheers me up is:

Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Don’t go around tonight, well it’s bound to take your life, there’s a bad moon on the rise.”

It is very difficult catching kiwi in the full moon so is a good excuse to have the night off!

My happy place is:

My hacienda in the Tararua foothills and on the banks of the Otaki River. I have mature native kohekohe/pukatea/nikau forest as my garden and grow babacos, feijoas, peppers, tree tomatoes, avocados, bananas and other tropical fruits.

My best ever holiday was:

I visited the South American Altiplano with my wife Dynett. This is a strange mystical place with many peculiar properties. The rocks contain so much iron that they create strong magnetic fields causing parked cars to drive uphill by themselves.

Here’s a photo of a visit to some geysers 5000 metres above sea level. With the thinner air and reduced gravity, it’s hard to keep your feet on the ground.

Rogan in South America.

A bit of casual levitation in South America

Deep and meaningful

My favourite quote is:

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” – Gary Snyder.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is:

“Work to live, don’t live to work.” You only have the one life, so enjoy it.

In work and life I am motivated by:

All animals have a limited number of heartbeats. The general rule is that animals with fast heartbeats, like stoats, have a short lifespan, while those with slow heartbeats, like tuatara, can live over a hundred years.

This motivates me to be calm, slow my heart rate down and complete my goals before the sum of my heartbeats nears the 95% percentile!

My conservation advice to New Zealanders is:

There is conservation and there is conversation. Walk the talk!

Question of the week

What’s one interesting fact that ordinary New Zealanders might not know about kiwi?

Only the male kiwi sits on the egg, right? Not so. Incubation is carried out by both parents of three of the five kiwi species.

On Stewart Island the young kiwi from previous years can also join in with egg sitting duties. In some big families the male Stewart Island kiwi can decide not to contribute at all.