Auckland Zoo is passionate about conserving wildlife in wild places. We find out how it is helping some of our most endangered species across New Zealand.

Story by Naomi Arnold.

It’s not easy to spot an Archey’s frog in the wild. They’re brown and green, highly cryptic, nocturnal, and barely the size of a thumb. Like much of New Zealand wildlife, this native frog was left behind on the evolutionary tree. These modern-day dinosaurs are nearly unchanged from their 150-million-year-old fossilised ancestors. That means their jump is more of a belly-flop, they don’t croak, have round (not slit) pupils, and as tadpoles stay within the egg until they metamorphose into little frogs and climb up on to dad’s back.

Unbelievably, even though they’re only 2-3cm long, they spend the vast majority of their life in the same square metre of their forest home. “They’ll wander off to perhaps search for a mate, but nearly always come back to this very small area,” says Auckland Zoo Curator of Ectotherms and Birds, Richard Gibson.

Along with having a breeding programme for Archey’s frogs on site, Auckland Zoo assists New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) with regular surveys and censuses of these frogs in the wild. Looking for one of these nocturnal creatures is slow work. It involves getting down on hands and knees in the leaf litter in the Whareorino Forest, checking every inch of a search grid with a torch and trying not to kneel on something you shouldn’t.

But because the frogs have a high level of what is called site fidelity, it means zoo staff can return year after year and find the same frogs in the same spots – under a log, a stone or a hole in a fallen tree. The frogs are remarkably long-lived and could occupy that spot for 40 years in the cold and mist of the protected forest of the central North Island.

However, despite the frog being a master of camouflage, introduced predators such as rats and hedgehogs have devastated its numbers, and it is now critically endangered. Auckland Zoo is the only place in the world that holds and breeds Archey’s frogs outside of the wild; learning to breed them is an insurance policy against extinction should threats to their survival in the wild not be reversed in time. The Archey’s frog is just one of many threatened species this not-for-profit conservation organisation is helping, in partnership with the DOC and various community groups, universities and other zoos and aquariums.

At good zoos like Auckland, conservation education, research, breed-for-release programmes and helping conserve wildlife in the wild are core business. Around the world, zoos are playing an increasingly important role in protecting animals and their habitats. As experts in intensively managing animal populations, their skills are in hot demand in the wild. Auckland Zoo’s field conservation efforts have grown enormously over the past seven years, and in any year, staff can spend up to 10,000 hours working in the field on more than 30 different conservation projects, predominantly in New Zealand.

In 2000, zoo staff established the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund to also financially support wilderness conservation efforts, both in New Zealand and overseas. More than $4m has been raised so far and granted to conservation projects all over the world. Among the many threatened endemic species in need of intervention and management are kākāpō, takahē, whakahao (New Zealand sea lion), wētāpunga and cobble and Chesterfield skinks. Auckland Zoo is doing everything it can to stop these species from disappearing.

There are just 300 takahē left in the world, and only 147 (adult) kākāpō. But it’s been the earliest and longest breeding season ever for kākāpō this year, with the chick tally now at over 60. Fifteen zoo veterinary and bird specialists have been on Whenua Hou, Anchor Island and mainland facilities in Invercargill helping the DOC’s Kākāpō Recovery team with the around-the-clock work of nest monitoring, transporting chicks and chick fostering to wild kākāpō mums.

“Today, the role of a good zoo is more important and relevant than ever, for both people and wildlife,” says Auckland Zoo director, Kevin Buley. “In our busy and modern world it’s not always easy to remain connected to the natural world. A good zoo helps to foster these connections by bringing people together and providing unique experiences with wildlife. The wildlife conservation science skills of our staff are also now more important than ever – both in the care of our animals at the zoo and in helping to save wildlife in the wild.”

WILDLIFE AT RISK

Some of New Zealand’s most endangered inhabitants, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Significant conservation work happens on site at the zoo where endangered species such as kiwi, kaka, pāteke (brown teal), whio (blue duck), orange-fronted kākāriki, cobble skinks, Chesterfield skinks and wētāpunga are all bred for release. Other projects involve travelling to some of New Zealand’s remotest places. Tagging sea lion pups, for example, involves going to remote Port Pegasus at the very bottom of Stewart Island. To the west, predator-free Whenua Hou is one of three islands that are home to kākāpō that zoo staff visit regularly.

Mazda helps with getting there. It sponsors Auckland Zoo with three new, specially wrapped vehicles: a Mazda CX-5, Mazda6 Wagon and BT-50. Richard Gibson says having the vehicles has been a game changer. “The ability to respond to things at short notice has been transformed by the Mazdas,” he says. “I can’t imagine being without them.” That includes driving the 300km of winding forestry and bush roads that lead zoo staff to Whareorino Forest and its population of Archey’s frogs, helping give New Zealand’s smallest amphibian a better chance of continuing its remarkable 150-million-year existence.