As the chief executive of Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Cameron Kerr oversees two zoos, 964 staff... and 4500 animals.
Your passion is conserving wildlife. Has the world made any progress in the past decade?
I’m on the board of the International Rhino Foundation and we’ve seen a decline in poaching and an increase in rhino numbers on the African continent. That was a very serious issue five or six years ago. In Indonesia, things have gotten worse rather than better but in India and Nepal, they’re doing a really good job in turning the tide. They still have huge challenges and no-one is out of the woods yet but society is now recognising the economic value of biodiversity and protecting wildlife. In my 24 years in wildlife conservation, this is a real moment. Despite that, you’ve got some concerns for the future.
What’s your greatest fear?
We end up with small, isolated populations of wildlife. People can still see them and think they’re going to be fine but genetically the quality is not good – there’s not a lot of genetic diversity and the exposure to human encroachment or catastrophes like disease, flood and fire can wipe them out.
What can you do about that?
It’s no longer a situation where we can let nature take its course. It requires an intensive response, such as translocating animals. That means pulling them out, breeding them, managing the genetics carefully, creating habitats and educating communities because it’s no good putting animals back if the communities around them aren’t part of the solution. Then it’s putting those animals back, monitoring them and bringing new genetics in so that when a disease outbreak occurs, they don’t all get wiped out. They need to be able to run faster, swim or fly when a fire or a flood comes. It requires systems thinking, which is something that’s used a lot in weather, meteorology and understanding organisational and societal behaviour. We need to apply that to the complex world of ecosystems.
So what’s Taronga doing to contribute? I know you’ve had great experience reintroducing the greater bilby, which was presumed extinct in NSW.
We’re so pleased with that – the population has flourished. We’ve also done a number of bird releases with regent honeyeaters and we’re learning every time. The last couple of times we released some bird species, we had increased predation – other birds or feral animals attacking them – and you learn from that. What training mechanisms or other things do we need to do in preparation? There are so many risks. You want to learn a lot about increasing the probability of success and that’s where the science is important.
How do you get your message across when there’s so much noise out there?
Communication is at the core of social change. At Taronga, we can’t afford to only have people that have good keeping skills or veterinary skills. We need people who are powerful communicators and technically great at working with animals because they’re in the most powerful position to change mindsets. When people come to a zoo, they’re open-minded. We have this unique opportunity to talk directly to more than two million people a year. Not many corporations get to do that. We want to inspire people to think about how they behave and what they should advocate for.
Zoos have had a fraught history on animal welfare but they’ve changed so much, haven’t they?
The zoo of the future has to be at the leading edge of animal management and welfare and also be engaged with the community. It’s not only about the animals; it’s about providing a service for people. That can take many forms, from studies in a vet course right through to attending a concert or staying a night at the zoo. But every single dollar goes back into the work we do for wildlife. Sometimes people will say, “Has the modern zoo become too commercial?” I don’t think we can be too commercial. The crisis that we’re working on is bigger than all of us. So if we can generate income that increases our capacity to save wildlife and create habitat then I don’t see any conflict between the two “C words” – conservation and commercial.
You’ve rallied half a dozen CEOs from zoos around Australia and New Zealand to act as a sort of “senior management team”. How has that made an impact?
When we attend world zoo and aquarium conferences, they say we punch way above our weight. It’s because we’re all aligned in our thinking. We don’t see each other as competition – sometimes we compete on various things, probably ego more than anything [laughs] – but we’re proud that we work together for a common purpose. If there’s an issue, we’ll ring each other. I always say it’s not the resources and infrastructure that make your organisation great, it’s the way you work together that sets you apart. How can you create an environment for people to work together effectively, communicate well and solve problems for each other? It makes a massive difference.
When things go wrong, from lions on the run to workplace issues, how do you deal with those things?
We do a lot of preparation for incidents, whether it’s fire, escapes, injury or violence. We’re a community; we see it all here. And we do drills all the time, which is pretty old-fashioned and not rocket science but on the day, in the crisis, it takes out as many variables as possible. In the other issues we deal with, you have to go back to your values. When I have difficult decisions to make, it gets a hell of a lot easier when I ask, “How does it align with our values and ethics?” Sometimes that makes a decision a bit more expensive or painful in the short-term but I want to be able to look back and say, “With the information we had at the time, we made the right decision.”
You’ve raised $40 million for Wild Futures, an $81-million project to build two wildlife hospitals and a reptile conservation centre. What’s your secret in securing substantial funds like that?
Trust and having an inspiring vision. Our vision is not just about the infrastructure – it’s to significantly increase the capacity of this country to deal with the wildlife crisis. It’s not only about creating two specialist wildlife veterinary hospitals but teaching the next generation of vets, vet nurses and wildlife carers. It’s building capacity and knowledge across the nation. We’ve got the only zoo nutritionist in the Southern Hemisphere – she’s an expert in wildlife nutrition. That might be seen as a bit of a luxury but when we’re looking after 4500 of the most precious animals on the planet, it’s not a luxury.
You’re obviously a great storyteller. Is that helpful?
It’s mandatory. You can have the best idea or the most critical issue to deal with but if it doesn’t get the attention of those with decision-making power – and power can be money or decisions about policy – then you’ve failed as a change agent.
In 2019, Taronga opened Wildlife Retreat, which is luxury accommodation within the zoo. How important are those immersive experiences?
We get two million visitors a year and we’ll probably have about 70,000 overnight visitors [at Wildlife Retreat and glamping experience Roar and Snore]. It’s small by comparison but we want those people to be inspired to be change agents and advocates. The retreat also has a strong First Nations element and we want people to be proud of our country’s culture. One of our strategic pillars is our commitment to Country. So many Australian animals are totems and First Nations peoples have the strongest, closest relationship with the environment and sustainable living so we see real value in partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
You use satellites to track how visitors are interacting with the exhibits. Are you using AI to further that?
We’re not using AI yet to track our visitors but we’re starting to use it in our animal welfare by tracking behaviour and looking for patterns. We’ll apply this to people eventually. We want to have a good understanding of the behaviour of an animal in the wild and what their day looks like. A day is not having a big meal in the morning then sleeping all day and having another meal at night. There are social tensions with other animals and there are challenges. So we’re using AI to look at the animals’ behaviour and how they use the spaces they live in here at the zoo. It’s early days and it looks a bit clunky on the screen – a giraffe might look like an orange pole moving around – but the exciting bit is we can use the data to change the way we challenge the animals, feed them and interact – or not interact – with them.
You’ve been working for Taronga for 23 years, 14 as CEO. How do you stay motivated?
I’m learning all the time. It’s a very dynamic sector and I’ve never been bored – not one single day. It also comes back to purpose. Unless you’re willing to perform at 110 per cent, give the space to someone else – the work at Taronga is too important. I can’t go for a ride here but I also don’t feel like I’m working at 110 per cent because I’m so excited and passionate about it.
Finally, who is your favourite resident at Taronga?
There are a couple. Animals that lay eggs and suckle their young, which is what echidnas and platypuses do, are very, very cool. And female Australian sea lions are the supermodels of the planet. They are the most beautiful, streamlined creatures that fly through the water, with great big eyes. They melt your heart. But they’re also so naughty, like the naughtiest puppy you’ve ever had.
Image credit: Alana Dimou