Al Grant is used to working long hours and in unpredictable environments. By day (and often by night), the police senior sergeant spends his time keeping the streets of South Auckland safe. But in his downtime, he volunteers his time to keeping kiwi safe.
Al’s kiwi conservation mahi started during what he describes as ‘hell week’.
“I was looking for something to do with the kids during the school holidays and thought heading out to Tāwharanui to try to spot some kiwi sounded like a cool adventure,” he recollects. “We’d been looking for a while and hadn’t seen anything, and the kids were getting bored, as they do. I had to bribe them with McDonalds – ‘just another 10 minutes, just another 10 minutes’.
“Then just as we’d given up and were heading back to the car, we heard some rustling in the bushes near us. We saw a kiwi! Then two ran out right in front of us! It was that encounter that birthed a real curiosity in me about this special bird that very few people ever get to see in the wild.”
What followed was in-depth research into the kiwi, and the realisation that, in many cases, the reason someone hasn’t ever seen a kiwi is because the population is dying out.
“One stat that got to me was that the national kiwi population is declining by 2% every year. That was really sobering. I began to read up about why that was happening, and what opportunities there could be for a city slicker like me to help.”
Growing up, the born-and-bred Aucklander spent a lot of time with his family on the islands in the Hauraki Gulf.
“My family has salt in our blood,” he says. “As kids, the Gulf was our playground. We had some really good times out there and we saw a wide range of wildlife, but there was always something missing: the kiwi.
“In my lifetime, though, many of the gulf islands have become sanctuaries, and many of them are home to kiwi. Creatures that you’ve only read about in textbooks or maybe seen at the zoo, increasingly you can see them in the wild, even around Auckland.”
Al’s curiosity has allowed him to pursue a hands-on interest in kiwi conservation, becoming an active volunteer. One of his roles is a kiwi courier.
“Getting up at 3am to drive down to the Crombie Lockwood Kiwi Burrow in Taupō to pick up a kiwi chick, then drive it back to Auckland in time to meet a ferry, before accompanying it over to an island and helping it be released … it’s a very long day and you do feel a great deal of responsibility.
“But for me there’s a lot of mana being involved in such things that are miles away from what I do in my day job. At the end of the day I’m shattered, but in a peaceful way. As they say, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Al says conservation is made up of a really special bunch of humans.
“When I got into conservation, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know what conservation people were like or what the work involved so there were a lot of unknowns. But the people are amazing. Everyone I’ve worked with have good souls and good hearts. I have made some great friends from all over New Zealand and from all walks of life, and we often catch up over a beer and swap a few stories. They’re just good Kiwi people.”
A huge amount of work goes into saving the kiwi, and much of its success comes down to stringent predator control.
“Sometimes I feel a bit guilty,” Al admits. “Comparatively, I get the easy job couriering eggs and chicks from A to B. The people who really deserve the credit are the trappers – they’re the real heroes. Predator control is so important to the future of the kiwi. If we want to see kiwi in numbers anywhere near to what they used to be, we need more, and better, predator control.”
Having the opportunity to share these experiences with his kids is priceless.
“My 12-year-old son likes to come on the ferry with me to accompany a kiwi to its new home,” says Al. “Kids his age probably just want to be on their devices. But I know that, because he’s had these opportunities to get involved in conservation, he’ll remember these experiences. Hopefully they’ll plant something in himself so when he grows up he’ll have conservation in his heart too.”
Volunteering in kiwi conservation is just one way to give back to the whenua (land). Backyard trapping, picking up rubbish along rivers and streams, planting trees, teaching children about the natural environment, donating much-needed funds – even the smallest action has the ability to create a positive flow-on effect.
“I’ve taken a lot from the environment in terms of the experiences I’ve had in the outdoors, and I want to give back a little bit to make sure the environment and species that I enjoy are there for my kids,” says Al.
“The kiwi is so iconic but it’s also enigmatic. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding it. Not many people get to see one in the wild. My Instagram feed is now cluttered with kiwi conservation stories from all over New Zealand. I see some amazing kiwi work going on around the country, everything that’s happening with the boom in backyard trapping and Predator Free 2050, and the strategic direction that Save the Kiwi and other groups are taking with kiwi in sanctuaries and managed areas and on predator-free islands.
“I am hopeful that the tide is turning and kiwi numbers are increasing. And I’m proud to do my small bit to help.”
To volunteer your own time to kiwi conservation, contact your local kiwi conservation group or email firstname.lastname@example.org.