Second Nature: An update from Nicola Toki

Department of Conservation —  18/01/2016

By Nicola Toki, Threatened Species Ambassador

Happy New Year everyone!

I hope you enjoyed the break over the holidays. I spent Christmas in the Deep South with family, and the weather was beautiful.

Seeing a stoat in Nana’s garage in the Catlins was concerning, especially as it was the second stoat I saw within one afternoon. It has made me more determined than ever to encourage everyone to start pest-trapping at home. Are you trapping at home? I’d love to hear about it.

Stoat spotted by Nicola Toki in a garage.

The stoat that ran into my Nana’s garage in the Catlins. I am very disappointed to say I wasn’t able to catch him (not for lack of trying, though). I will be sending my grandparents a trap for sure.

Pest control is important in non-rural areas too; I have two traps in my backyard. Kelvin Hastie, a Wellington local, convinced 200 of his Crofton Downs neighbours to trap pests. The result was a zero percent detection of rats when DOC checked the area last year. You can listen to an interview with Kelvin about his mission to trap pests on Radio NZ here.

Threatened species over the ditch! 

In December I spent a couple of days in Melbourne with my Australian counterpart, Threatened Species Commissioner (TSC) Gregory Andrews, who took me on a whirlwind tour. I encountered some of Australia’s threatened species and the people pulling out all the stops to protect them.

Nicola Toki and Australia's Threatened Species Commissioner holding a wombat.

I couldn’t resist a cuddle with this ‘common’ wombat named Jojo

Just like my role, the Aussie TSC is relatively new (although Gregory has had 18 months to settle in). It was great to share stories and swap knowledge on our various threatened species initiatives. We visited Healesville Sanctuary, where we met the Zoo director and got a glimpse behind the scenes of their impressive conservation programmes, including the mountain pygmy possum captive breeding programme.  Getting close to a possum (even a tiny one) that is protected was a strange experience indeed for me as a New Zealander.

I got to see a huge variety of Australian native wildlife, and some awesome conservation schemes, such as the endangered orange bellied parrots, and the helmeted honey-eaters (which reminded me of our hihi back home).  I was really impressed with the Healesville Sanctuary team’s dedication to working alongside Gregory and his team to protect native wildlife (through captive breeding populations and release to the wild).

The critically endangered helmeted honeyeater.

The critically endangered helmeted honeyeater

In the evening, Gregory and I joined Josh and Andrew Weeks from platypusSPOT for a spot of platypus catching. PlatypusSPOT is a local citizen science programme focused on educating the public about platypus in urban areas in Melbourne. They had set nets throughout the Healesville rural area to monitor the local population, and we helped check the nets. Monitoring throughout the night also ensured the wellbeing of any platypus that might be caught.

Josh Griffiths of platypusSPOT, with the platypus nets.

Josh Griffiths of platypusSPOT, with the platypus nets

By 1am, we had caught a turtle, a mother duck and her ducklings (twice) and a freshwater crayfish (complete with her baby crayfish tucked underneath her tail). At that point, Gregory and I packed it in to catch a few hours sleep. However, we were still eager to see a platypus, and we promised Josh and Andrew we’d get up if they caught one. At 6am I woke to loud hammering on my door by my esteemed Aussie colleague, who was yelling, “they’ve got one, we need to be there in five minutes!”

Barely awake after a deep sleep and still in my ‘jarmies’, I did a clothing change that would make Superman proud, and we drove out to the site. Sure enough there was a platypus, and I helped with weighing, measuring and microchipping, and then released it back into the creek.

Nicola helping to measure the male juvenile platypus we found.

Me brushing up on my field work skills, helping to measure the male juvenile platypus we found

What an exciting opportunity! I was chuffed to take part. I was also cautious because male platypuses (and yes, its platypuses, NOT platypi – Josh and Andrew said it was the question they were asked most!) have a poisonous spur on the back of their rear foot.  The poison is so strong that if a human is spiked, morphine (or any opiates) won’t work to relieve the pain; only a nerve blocker can. So I was very careful to avoid being spiked by this unassuming animal which is weirdly cute, yet extremely poisonous!

Platypus barb.

Platypus barb

Canine guardians  

Refuelling took quite a lot of coffee, especially for Josh from platypusSPOT who’d done the hard work and been up all night. Gregory and I made our way to Werribee Open Range Zoo that afternoon, along with our Conservation Minister Maggie Barry. The zoo is developing a very cool new programme to protect eastern barred bandicoots from predation, in partnership with the Australian government.

An Eastern barred bandicoot.

An Eastern barred bandicoot

Eastern barred bandicoots are now extinct in the wild on mainland Australia due to predation. Werribee and the Threatened Species team are developing an innovative scheme to train Italian Shepherd dogs, the Maremma Sheepdog, to guard bandicoots (and other wildlife in range).The team at Werribee have a pilot programme underway to train a handful of maremma.

So how does it work? The maremma, beautiful, big, white, retriever-looking dogs, have been used as shepherds for flocks of sheep in Italy for 3000 years.  These dogs are being raised with their own flock of sheep, but they are being raised in proximity to an eastern barred bandicoot enclosure.  The dogs and bandicoots can hear, smell, even see each other through windows in the enclosure; the idea is when the dogs are in the wild, they will protect the sheep flock and bandicoots from cats and foxes that will avoid going near the dog’s territory.

It’s a fascinating project, something brave and innovative, reliant on the long history these dogs have as guardians. I was reminded of our amazing Conservation Dogs programme back home, and it made me proud that we too have looked to our history and relationship with dogs to try and protect the native wildlife we hold so dear.

Minister Maggie Barry, Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews and I with Albus, the Maremma sheepdog ambassador.

Minister Maggie Barry, Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews and I with Albus, the Maremma sheepdog ambassador

Introduced predators are a massive problem in Australia, with feral cats and foxes decimating populations of native mammals. In fact, the Australian Threatened Species Strategy has a target of eliminating two million feral cats by 2020 because of their affect on native wildlife.

Australia has so many mammals to protect (including possums, which are a nightmare for us) while New Zealand is the ‘land of birds’ (and reptiles, invertebrates, bats, marine mammals, fish, plants and fungi of course). However, despite the many differences between our threatened species, we have a lot in common. The most obvious thing we share is a growing awareness of the need to pull out all the stops to protect our nature, and recognition of all of those who are already engaged in the battle.

I am also glad to have found a new friend and colleague in the fight against extinction. Cheers cobber!

2 responses to Second Nature: An update from Nicola Toki


    Thanks, Nicola. I really enjoyed this post. Very informative.


    Love the dog!!!