Telling the 'real story of New Zealand wildlife'

Doc threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki holds a giant weta on Little Barrier Island. Photo: supplied
Doc threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki holds a giant weta on Little Barrier Island. Photo: supplied
Department of Conservation threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki has dedicated her career to telling stories of New Zealand's wildlife, writes Jono Edwards.

Nature communicator Nicola Toki always has a mantra from her hero David Attenborough in the back of her mind: ‘‘No-one will protect what they don’t care about; and no-one will care about what they have never experienced.’’

Because of this, the Department of Conservation threatened species ambassador has dedicated her career to telling stories of New Zealand’s wildlife.

‘‘If I can’t get people physically experiencing things like short-tailed bats, giant weta and tuatara, then I can get them to experience them by telling a story.’’

As well as at the department, Toki (40) has had an extensive career in conservation, including stints at Forest and Bird and TBfree New Zealand.

She thought ‘‘long and hard’’ before turning from research towards nature communication.

‘‘I didn’t necessarily want to be the only person in the world who knew about the feather ratio of a particular species of penguin.’’

Toki gained a first-class honours degree in zoology and ecology and a postgraduate diploma in natural history film-making and communication at the University of Otago.

In those seven years of study, wildlife was something she couldn’t escape.

‘‘We had a flat in Dunedin which was really cold and miserable and it had a very healthy population of native spiders, which are really ancient. We just kind of let them be.’’

She began her career in the city and fell in love with the wonder of Otago’s nature.

Toki says the region is unique in its diversity of wildlife, from endangered marine mammals and sea birds, to rare skinks and other lizards in nearby ‘‘iconic tussock country’’.

Toki was born in Southland, but really connected with New Zealand nature while living in Mt Cook National Park.

She now lives with her family in North Canterbury, but says she is mostly based on aeroplanes.

Toki worked as a researcher, writer and presenter on TVNZ mini­documentary wildlife series Meet the Locals, has a regular segment with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ and has also written two children’s books on New Zealand ecology.

Her latest venture into television is Discovery Channel’s six-part wildlife documentary New Zealand: Evolution Islands, which features her as a communicator throughout the series.

While filming she experienced some career highlights.

Toki recalls one occasion, filming on Little Barrier Island, when she had an intimate encounter with a rare wetapunga, the largest species of giant weta.

‘‘While I was talking to a ranger an enormous female weta climbed up my arm and actually up my face.

‘‘She had one leg in my mouth and one in my eyeball. To me that’s more exciting than going to a rock concert.’’

Another highlight from the series came in the middle of a dark central North Island forest while catching rare short-tailed bats.

‘‘It was drizzly, about midnight. It was a meticulous operation and while we were waiting to catch one in the net I was handed a little bat and asked ‘Could you just tuck this up in your shirt?’.

‘‘When we went to release it, instead of flying away, it ran up my arm and sat on my head and didn’t move.

‘‘One of the rangers said to me,

‘You’re probably the only person in the world to have a short-tailed bat on their head.’ ’’

A large part of her job is communicating the threats to the country’s species.

It is the greatest challenge of her role to tell the ‘‘real story of New Zealand wildlife’’, which includes the bad news, while also offering hope.

She knows of many close calls the country has had with endangered species and does not want to see them repeated, she says.

‘‘For example, the tuatara. Essentially it’s the last living relative of the dinosaur in the world.

‘‘What most people don’t know is that the moment rats arrived in New Zealand, tuatara disappeared from the mainland.

‘‘If it wasn’t for populations existing on some islands on which there were no rats, we wouldn’t have tuatara.’’

Í New Zealand: Evolution Islands screens Sundays at 8.30pm on Discovery.

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