I talk to Iain Graham about his dog Rein, saving a species and the unconventional combination of dogs & kiwis.
Where do you work?: “I have a great balance of 60/40 in the field and office. The ‘office’ is our new DOC building in Franz Josef Glacier, and the ‘field’ is both Okarito Sanctuary – 12,000 hectares, and the only place the Rowi kiwi is found; and Motuara Island – a 90 hectare predator-free island in the Marlborough Sounds, where we spend about one week per month.”
How long have you been working for DOC? : “I only moved here for six months, and it’s been almost ten years! I first started in Recreation – Visitor Assets (tracks & huts) then to a temporary three month contract in the Biodiversity team changing transmitters on the kiwis. Then I applied for a year position, which eventually progressed into a permanent position.” What is ‘Operation Nest Egg’ and how has it helped the Rowi population?: “In 2012 the Okarito Brown Kiwi, the Rowi, was in trouble. Its population was down to 250 birds due to stoats, rats, dogs and possums. We had to do something, and so began ‘Operation Nest Egg’ sponsored by BNZ and DOC. Basically we go into the bush, track the breeding kiwi to its burrow, and take their egg to be incubated by hand, then re-introduce them back into the Sanctuary again. The population is now currently 400-500 birds in the wild.” How has the programme developed over this time? : “We have progressed from traipsing through rugged West Coast bush for weeks, to contracting an aeroplane for a couple of hours with a tracking programme nicknamed ‘Sky Ranger’. The first year I started we caught 12 birds. Now we are catching 60 birds each season. The West Coast Wildlife Centre was built in 2010 and we have a close relationship with them. Up until then the eggs were incubated in the Franz Josef DOC office before being transferred to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Chch.” What goes on there?: “In the office is where we write up all our admin and research from our field work, as well as seeking advocacy opportunities – we are always looking at where the project is going, planning, reviewing, streamlining and upgrading our technology, and writing goals to work towards. In the Okarito Sanctuary we track the birds, collect the egg, carry out track maintenance and keep tabs on the birds. This is usually just day work and occasionally overnight. The egg goes straight to the West Coast Wildlife Centre where it is hatched in an incubator, and released into the Centre’s indoor enclosure, which is open to the public for viewing. The first four birds to hatch for the season are the display birds in the Nocturnal house at the WCWC. When these are 6 months old they are replaced with new young birds. This means no kiwi spend more than 6 months in the nocturnal house. All the other chicks head straight to Motuara Island when they reach approx 800 gms. They stay on the Island for about a year, or until they are 1200gms in weight and can fend off their main predators – stoats – on their own. They are handled every two months while on the island and there are 50 birds there at present. We then take off their transmitters, as they don’t reproduce until they are about 8 years old, and release them back into the Okarito Sanctuary.” How long have you had your dog Rein for and how has it changed your work?: “Rein is a seven year old Vizsla. I started her training at eight months old, and this training continues on until she retires. It’s specific Kiwi training, and she picks it up pretty quickly. Having Rein at work with me changes how we used to track birds completely and saves a lot of time and resources. In a day where the whole team caught 51 birds, Rein and I caught 29 in 9 hours. Three other teams of two people caught the remaining 22. It’s much quicker and really effective.“ What is Reins’ role in this program, and does she like working?: “We track the bird to within 40 metres of its burrow using our antenna tracking system, and Rein does the rest, creeping in silently and pointing to the burrow without disturbing the bird. Rein’s cue to start work is to put her muzzle on – for both the Kiwi’s protection and her own. She never has contact with the kiwi, the closest in the bush would be a ½ metre proximity. She loves being at work with me, and it’s great that I can have her with me rather than leave her at home like most people. Contrary to popular belief, Rein isn’t allowed anywhere other dogs aren’t. She has a permit to enter these areas only when working, so unless that muzzle is on and there’s kiwi to be found, it’s a no go zone! I expose Rein to as much as possible – at work she is regularly in helicopters, boats, jet boats; and days off she goes on dog access tramping trips. I even took her canyoning last week! She gets occasional rewards of cheese and liver, but her main reward is praise, from not just me but the whole team. She is part of the DOC family, and when we are alone on the island together she’s great company.” How does the strange combination of dogs & kiwis work with the public? : “Dogs are one of the Kiwi’s biggest predators. But that we can use that in a positive way, to save them quicker and more efficiently is great. People can connect with dogs and it helps when educating the public about our programme.” What do you enjoy most about your work? :“Making a difference. And the advocacy side of it – educating people especially senior kids at school, as they have an understanding about what we are actually doing and achieving and it blows them away. Training Rein; the variability in the work and connecting with people. Occasionally we get a chance to do other work outside of kiwis and this area; fire emergency; marine mammals; trapping; Haast Tokoeka work; and being in the Landsborough with the Mohua (yellow head). Encountering like-minded people passionate for what you’re trying to achieve together. The locals are very supportive here and always interested to know what’s going on with the project, that it’s something to be proud of in our small communities here in Glacier Country.” There are approximately 19 working kiwi dogs around NZ as part of the Conservation Dog Programme. To make a donation to Kiwi’s for Kiwi see www.kiwisforkiwi.org. To see these Rowi up and close at the West Coast Wildlife Centre see www.wildkiwi.co.nz For more info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or check out Rein’s very own Instagram account @gingerdogwithajob.