A Conversation with Jonathan Wilcken, Former Director of the Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

Jonathan Wilcken started his career at the London Zoo. “It was an instinctive choice,” he recalled. “I was living in London and frankly had come to the end of a series of jobs I was just doing to earn money to travel around Europe. I thought I needed something more meaningful.” Wilcken had a sense he could find that through working with animals, which led him to the zoo. “It was not a particularly thought out decision but I found zoos incredibly fascinating, remarkable places,” he looked back. “I remember distinctly coming into the zoo on a magical morning and feel like I was walking through a magical landscape with the song of gibbons coming through my ears. It was an experience that transported me out of London into somewhere else. Those feelings have stayed with me as I’ve gone on.”

@ London Zoo

Wilcken gained great hands-on experience while at the London Zoo. “I’ve never been fitter in my life,” he commented. He worked everywhere from the children’s zoo to large hoofstock to the small mammal house. “The small mammal building was the most intriguing part of my job in London because of the sheer diversity of small animals there,” Wilcken stated.

@ Taronga Zoo

Next, Wilcken went down to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. “I organized a staff exchange so I swopped jobs,” he explained. “I was brought up in Australia so it was kind of a coming home with a new perspective. I got to see Australia through new zoo eyes and worked in the native species section. I discovered what was unique about Australian animals, which I hadn’t been particularly aware of growing up in Sydney and had the revelation of the opportunities that come with local wildlife.” This perspective would influence his directorship at the Auckland Zoo years later.

@ Taronga Zoo

@ Taronga Zoo

Taronga Zoo gave Wilcken experiences he could have never gained in London Zoo. “We were doing things like going out in the field collecting koala browse and doing bat surveys,” he elaborated. “We were working in a wild context that’s more outdoorsy than [the environment of] London Zoo could ever be. We had rehabilitated wildlife coming and going between the zoo and wild Australia. The main thing that struck me was how well the zoo could remain connected to local wildlife and all the opportunities that arose.”

@ Taronga Zoo

@ Taronga Zoo

For years, Wilcken ran the Zoo and Aquarium Association of Australia. “That job had a lot with the science of population management,” he remarked. “There’s a really interesting set of challenges in managing the genetics and demographics of small populations. In meeting these challenges, zoos have spawn a whole branch of science zoos are creating. That’s been a really interesting field to me! In the zoo association, we set up processes for running these programs collaboratively between Australian and New Zealand zoos and it gave me a great perspective on all their different approaches that can be taken.”

@ Taronga Zoo

@ Taronga Zoo

To his surprise, Wilcken was approached by the Auckland Zoo to consider becoming their next director. He saw it as an opportunity to do something different. “When you run a regional association, you’re supporting collaboration between a whole range of zoos but you’re not the decision maker,” Wilcken articulated. “It was appealing to be the decision maker and help put together the strategy of an organization. And it turned out to be a challenge more interesting than I would have ever thought.” In 2007, Jonathan Wilcken became Director of the Auckland Zoo.

@ Auckland Zoo

The Auckland Zoo was already doing many things right. “One of the great strengths of Auckland Zoo was that it was strongly supported by the [Auckland] council [the zoo’s owner] in terms of its conservation mission,” Wilcken explained. “However, I saw a zoo that hadn’t quite worked out how to best deliver on it. The ground conditions were right [but more needed to be done.]” The new director would use this foundation to assemble a team to significantly progress the zoo’s conservation mission.

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

“I could see there were a number of outdated decisions and structures that needed to go,” Wilcken stated. “Perhaps the main thing I felt was that the zoo could be challenged about the way it was almost feeling, rather than thinking, its way forward. I thought we needed to question more what we did and why. We needed both to be true to our conservation instincts and always to be challenged and be comfortable with being challenged.” Since that time, Auckland Zoo has aimed to push the boundaries of a zoo’s role in conservation and animal wellness.

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

A major step in the Auckland Zoo becoming strong in animal wellness was putting together the right policies and procedures. The zoo’s life science team developed a comprehensive animal care charter for the zoo. “This underpins every animal managmenet decision we make,” Wilcken elaborated. “It’s essentially about what we need to do to make animals happy. If we give them the right environment, social setting, nutrition and vet care and challenge them, we have a happy animal. We use a formal framework called the Five Domains of Animal Welfare, which is essentially the next stage on from the old ‘Five Freedoms,’ [an approach originally developed for agriculture.] This really just formalizes the common sense approach to animal wellbeing- by focusing on the nutritional domain, social domain, environmental domain, the physical domain, and, through these, the mental domain. We use this as a framework for assessing [the welfare of] every animal at the zoo.”

@ Auckland Zoo

One way the Auckland Zoo does this is by ensuring animals have change in their routines. “As much as possible, we try to take the animals out of their habitats every now and then,” Wilcken explained. “For example, we take our elephants out to explore the forested areas of the zoo [outside visitor areas.] This gives them variety, an important part of ensuring our animals have a fulfilling life.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

A major initiative since Wilcken took over the zoo has been making sure the Auckland Zoo better represents New Zealand wildlife. “When I came to the zoo, there were very few native species on display to our visitors. In my first big project at the zoo, so we converted 20% of the zoo’s footprint to a precinct named Te Wa Nui [a Maori poetic phrase meaning ‘The Great Forest’]. This is an area solely focused on New Zealand species,” he stated. “It features the iconic environments of the coastal islands (which have played an import role in preserving New Zealand species), forests, high country and wetlands.” The biodiversity in New Zealand is very unique. “There are almost no mammals endemic to New Zealand so it’s pretty much all birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates,” Wilcken noted. “We have a unique set of wildlife that is not the obvious and charismatic megafauna zoos are used to. This includes a whole suite of birds who became flightless as they took niches usually taken by mammals. There’s an extraordinary array of reptiles, too.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

The Auckland Zoo had to be creative in order to get guests to fully appreciate this part of the zoo. Being often small, shy and difficult to see, Wilcken noted that New Zealand species “don’t lay themselves easily to a zoo display, so we tied to build habitats so lovely that people would linger at them.” “By lingering, they would have a greater chance of seeing more,” Wilcken articulated. “We have about 60 species [from New Zealand] on display, and it’s often the first time New Zealanders have seen them as they’re so difficult to see in the wild. The New Zealand exhibit reframed the way we talked to our guests about native fauna and served as a springboard for our involvement in more field conservation projects around the nation.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

The Auckland Zoo is currently implementing an ambitious master plan. It will turn another 20% of the zoo’s footprint into a Sumatran rainforest. “The area in need of the most redevelopment was our Southeast Asian exhibits, which occupy the middle of the zoo,” Wilcken commented. “It is logistically challenging to develop that big of an area. In order to get prepared for that, we have renewed some of the areas of the zoo on the periphery to make sure there is enough for visitors to see [during construction.]”

@ Auckland Zoo

In the meantime, the Auckland Zoo has constructed African and Australian exhibits. “The African Savannah fringes onto the giraffe, zebra and ostrich savanna, which we remodeled to bring people right down into the savanna,” Wilcken said. “Now, visitors find themselves right at the watering hole. We changed the way people experience the savanna.” The Auckland Zoo added a meerkat and lovebird aviary. “It was a nerve-racking step to do an aviary with both meerkats and birds in the same space,” Wilcken noted. “The exhibit also includes real landscape drama with water and rocks.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

For Australia, Wilcken turned to his childhood for inspiration. “As it developed, the Australian exhibit was increasingly became about things I recognized from my upbringing,” he elaborated. “The focus was on species that would be curious for the everyday visitor- the fantastic gaudy cockatoos and cockateels, giant monitor lizards I’d see regularly when walking in the bush. We have the giant stick insects and snake-necked turtles that I often tried to catch as I was growing up in the Sydney suburbs. It was a very personal exhibit for me and has all the weird wildlife I’d come across as a kid everyday.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

The upcoming major project will be a recreation of an Sumatran rainforest starring orangutans and tigers. “We have a significant chunk of the zoo which dates back a long time ago,” Wilcken remarked. “It also happens to have orangutans, one of the most challenging animals that zoos can maintain. We have orangutans in an exhibit that dates back to the 1970s and does not let them express [species specific behaviors.] The starting point of the Southeast Asian renovation is to rebuild our orangutan habitat and let them range more widely. They will have many more choices and spend more time in the trees. We’re going to communicate what’s special about Sumatra and also include tigers, otters, siamangs and so forth. All the planning has been completed and we will develop about 20% of the zoo into Sumatra.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

A major priority of the Auckland Zoo has been wildlife conservation. “Conservation is a very important part of being a zoo,” Wilcken commented. “The influence we can have on our community is very important. We’re in the middle of the city, an artificial environment, but one through which we can help people build emotional connections [with animals] and [spark their] intellectual curiosity. A fundamental part of being a zoo is reacquainting people with wildlife. We also lead by example and are involved in significant conservation work ourselves outside of the zoo. We are in the position to evoke a skillset in wildlife management that is continually being increasingly valued.”

@ Auckland Zoo

Wilcken talked about how the staff and resources of zoos can lend immense skills to help with conservation. “We incubate a unique skillset the ability to closely manage animals,” he reflected. “Those direct animal management skills are increasingly important in sustaining wild populations. We have quite a lot of experience of this in New Zealand, where endemic species are challenged by the introduction of exotic predators. There’s nothing like our species anywhere else in the world but many are on the brink and reliant on the sort of close management that zoos specialize in. For example, there are some species where their entire population is managed through a zoo-style studbook. We also provide a lot of veterinary backup for these species. That’s an area zoos need to think about - how we can export the skills we develop in the zoo outside its gates to help wild animals.”

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

“For example, there are only 150 kakapo (nocturnal flightless bird) left in the world,” Wilcken continued. “Zoo staff work with the Department of Conservation to make sure that every single kakap has a complete specimen record, an identifier and a health care program. We provide full veterinary services to the kakapo recovery team and also will send our staff to help hand-raise kakapos where their parents fail. [That is an example of how] wildlife handling and rearing skills from zoos can be used to help conserve animals in the wild.”

@ Auckland Zoo

The Auckland Zoo tends to concentrate its conservation efforts on local species. “It is much more sensible to send staff to places around New Zealand rather than overseas,” Wilcken stated. However, the zoo does send grants around the world. “Everyone who buys a ticket to the zoo sends a dollar into the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund, which we use to give grants to projects overseas,” Wilcken explained. “When you’re granting projects in developing countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, small amounts of money go a long way. We are long-term supports of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project, which looks to rehabilitate and rerelease orangutans in Indonesia. [Supporting projects like this] allows you to demonstrate to visitors how zoos supports wildlife even beyond our gates and gives our visitors a sense of how they can help us.”

@ Auckland Zoo

Another way the Auckland Zoo contributes to conservation is by the impact it has on its guests. “We have the ability to influence public attitudes in a broader sense,” Wilcken reflected. “Our palm oil campaign [inspired] behavior change among Aucklanders. That’s a more fundamental shift zoos can make. Influencing our communities is a critical role for zoos, whether we’re talking about climate change or about habitat alteration."

@ Auckland Zoo

@ Auckland Zoo

“Every day, the way we live on the earth is rendering wildlife more and more dependent on our ability to protect and sustain it,” Wiclken elaborated. “There’s not enough forest in Indonesia to sustain Sumatran tigers. They will only survive if we all help create a different relationship between the community and wild animals. Zoos can certainly show the way in helping to forge a new stewardship relationship between people and animals.”

@ Auckland Zoo

One of the Auckland Zoo’s key conservation projects has been working with the Rotoroa Island charitable trust on an island in the Jauraki Gulf off the coast of Auckland. “We’ve worked together to remove all the exotic damaging predators and pests on the island and to introduce a range of native species,” Wilcken explained. “Our aim is solely to enrich the biodiversity of the island, and in a way that engages our community as much as possible. We’re not particularly concerned about if the species lived there before, but more on how we can demonstrate how wildlife management can improve the ecosystem. We take school groups to the island and teach them about practical conservation, encourage visitors, hold special public days when we release kiwi or lizards and invite people to take part. It’s about creating an environment for, and with, a community.”

@ Auckland Zoo

#AucklandZoo #TarongaZoo #LondonZoo

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti