A life in conservation – Celebrating Ranger Chris

Department of Conservation —  22/02/2021

After 37 years with the Department of Conservation, Chris Annandale is gearing up for his last summer with the organisation.

He’ll get one more season out his well-worn boots, then he’ll hang them up and retire.

Chris spotted out in the field wearing his well worn boots!
📷: Carisse Enderwick

So how does a life in conservation begin?

It begins as a seed, planted by a dad, Jock Annandale, who was an honorary Wildlife Service ranger; a dad who encouraged his son out into the world to explore and learn new things; a dad who said read this book, sonas he handed over Newton McConochie’s, You’ll learn no harm from the hills. It was the trigger, Chris says – the initial driving force and inspiration, planted. And so grew the seed and the boy, nurtured by a love of the outdoors until one day, with money in his pocket from grandma, he was buying rat traps to set down at the Waikato River.

Chris started his working life in heavy construction and a redundancy set the wheels in motion for a career in the public service. A cold beer with Dave Mills, an old New Zealand Army mate, led to a phone call later that night. Lands and Survey needed a ranger, but Chris had to meet the Senior Ranger first. Their first meeting would be unplanned.

“A mate and I were hunting in a reserve and we ran into a bloke called John Greenwood who was doing the same” Chris says. ”I asked him, ‘can I see your permit?’. He looked at me and said, ‘can I see your permit?’.” It turned out that John was the Senior Ranger.

Chris doing pest fish work out in the Waikato.
📷: DOC

Later in the job interview, unable to place where he’d previously met Chris, John asked the important questions: “Can you read a compass? Can you read a map? Can you use a chainsaw?” Yes, yes and yes. When the penny finally dropped and John recalled that chance meeting in the reserve, he asked “Did you know I was the senior ranger?” No. And so began the career that spanned nearly four decades with the simple statement, “You have the job”.

Chris became a ranger in 1984 and Whangamarino Wetland would be a special place in the evolution of his work. It started with willow control as part of the Work Development Skills scheme where one of the youths went on to run his own successful chainsaw business.

The old Waikato crew were tight. Practical problem-solvers, makers, doers: Don Major, John Finch, Dave Matthews and Chris. They built their own trailers, tracks and bridges. The office we have come to know affectionately as Te Rapa Base was once a workshop housing one solitary desk.

A lot can change in 37 years (just ask the old crew). Technology has led the way. Compass bearings and hip-chains were replaced with GPS, revolutionising the way monitoring work was done. Although it pains Chris to say it, technology is one of the best things to happen in the work to conserve the biodiversity of Aotearoa.

Where it all started for Chris – willow control at Whangamarino Wetland Reserve.
📷: Graeme Conway

And as for the changes to the environment? Chris grew up in the outdoors. He was a child who swam in all the Waikato lakes – Waikare, Waahi, Whangape. It’s a hard thing to do, to look at childhood spaces and see them fade into lesser versions of themselves.

“We have a huge way ahead of us to get these lakes back, but we’re making a start. I’m optimistic about where things are headed.”

There are folks with a vision for the future, and Chris says you’ll find them all around DOC and in our communities.

And can a life in conservation change you?

In the early days Chris had watched whale strandings on TV. “Why don’t they just dog-tucker the things?” he’d say to his wife, Joss.

A stranded family of orca changed everything.

“We were in Aotea Harbour. We took turns looking after the stranded bull and cow while cradling the baby in the water. At one point someone asked, ‘Is the cow still alive? and she gave a loud exhale as if to say yes! She was hit by a wave and her body language changed; I could sense something was going to happen. The next wave lifted her up and she pushed off that sandbar with such power.”

One from the archives – a stranded orca in Aotea Harbour.
📷: Bruce Postill

Ranger Garry Hickman then let go of the calf. “She was like a homing torpedo straight to her mother. We then turned our attention to the bull, the waves flipping him over. There we were, our shoulders against him, pushing to turn him up the right way. The wave picked him up and he was off towards his family.”

But then he beached on the sandbar again. “I thought that was it. We can’t do more. But something happened. I’d never seen an animal put on such a display of power as he inched himself over the sandbar and finally into the deep water.”

Nature has a way of revealing itself to us in the most unexpected ways. “The experience changed me as a person, it changed me deep inside. I stop and look more now, I pay attention. If I’m out hunting and I see a hind and fawn, I take the bullets out. I get more enjoyment stopping to watch.” Returning back home that day, Joss took one look at Chris. “You’ve changed”.

Orca stranding’s in 1996 – an event which had a lasting impact on Chris.
📷: Bruce Postill

“Of course I’ve changed. I got soaked.” said Chris. She shook her head, “No, you’ve changed.”

The richness of a career at DOC provides a lifetime of memories.

“One night on Middle Island I saw two big male tuataras fighting in the moonlight, as if performing on a stage. I thought, eat your heart out Jurassic Park, I’m watching dinosaurs fighting here!”

Chris was also one of the first six people to ever see Corybas carcei, the swamp helmet orchid, again when it was rediscovered in Whangamarino Wetland. He has also seen the transformation of the Horsham Downs peat lakes through his work with local farmer, Andrew Hayes.

Corybas carcei, the swamp helmet orchid.
📷: Catherine Beard

But what did he do it for? “I grew up in an era where we did a lot of damage, so maybe it’s a guilty conscience. Perhaps I’ve been trying to repair some of that damage and that’s why I keep coming back each day. We need to look after our country. It’s our children’s and grandchildren’s heritage. We don’t own anything – what we have is on loan to us from our grandchildren.”

And so how does a life in conservation end?

Well, it doesn’t.

It’s a seed, planted in the heart that grows and grows, setting deep roots and bearing fruit – the apples that simply cannot fall far from the tree. Chris has four grandchildren, Ben (18), Madison (12), Morgan (10) and Brodie (9) and knows that a life in conservation simply does not stop, cannot stop, will not stop. His youngest grandson, Brodie, believes Chris can speak kakariki and fantail, and granddaughter is an excellent trout angler.

Reflections in Whangamarino.
📷: DOC

So before you hurry to offer Chris his next volunteering opportunity, he will be spending time with his family, teaching, nurturing, planting. And for those who know Chris well, you’ll understand the annual pilgrimage to the lakeside at Areare, Waikare and Whangape: he’ll be incommunicado, incognito, waiting in the rushes with his sidekick-shadow, Tui the dog, sharing in her last duck-shooting season as she, too, prepares to retire. It’s a summer whose endings will mark a new beginning for Chris and his family.

We wish you all the best, Chris. Enjoy this season.

5 responses to A life in conservation – Celebrating Ranger Chris

    Gerry Kessels 26/04/2021 at 9:08 am

    Thanks for being a great mentor and mate in the first years of my career Chris. And along with the others at DOC in the early ’90s, teaching me the fundamentals of being a good community ecologist: scientific knowledge is not an exclusive club, respect the people and the people will respect you and the land, and having fun while working hard makes the day go faster. You can be proud to having set a shining example for the next generation(s) of conservationists and rangers. Catch ya for a beer and a yarn soon – after opening of course.. Cheers Gerry


    Gonna miss you heaps Santa. Thanks heaps for being one of the best good buggars around.

    Joe Harawira 04/03/2021 at 7:16 pm

    All the best in retirement Chris. Give us a bell and I’ll turn up for a beer.

    Doug Taucher 25/02/2021 at 9:15 pm

    Well done chris all the best come join us retirees it’s a good life also
    Cheers Doug taucher

    Peter Hallinan 22/02/2021 at 12:09 pm

    A fond farewell, wonderful words. I share Chris’ sorrow over the Waikato Lakes. As a child in the 1940’s I spent happy hours on Lake Rotongaro with my brothers; an Eden forever lost? Hopefully not…