Interview with Wildlife Photographer Leon Berard
Hi, I'm Leon Berard, an amateur wildlife photographer based in Nelson. I spend a lot of time in the field working for the Department of Conservation (DOC), which fuels my appreciation for our native wildlife and occasionally provides photographic opportunities as a bonus.
Can you tell us where your passion for conservation comes from and how you got into this field of work?
I grew up in the country and have always been an outdoorsy person which led to studying Wildlife Management at Otago University. This really triggered my interest in conservation and appreciation of our native wildlife, and placement on Ulva Island gave me my first taste of what an area can look like once predators have been removed and the wildlife can thrive.
When did you decide to pair your love of conservation and photography? Can you tell us a bit about your creative journey?
At the end of my studies, I spent three months monitoring Robins/Toutouwa on Ulva Island, a predator-free island in Rakirua/Stewart Island's Paterson Inlet. The island is a goldmine of endemic and rare South Island forest birds, and even though I struggled to do justice to them with my little point and shoot camera I quickly realised that friends and family enjoyed experiencing our wildlife through my images.
After that, I bought my first DSLR to improve my images, and still have the goal of making wildlife and conservation more accessible, appreciated and understood.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work whilst living on Ulva Island?
Each day we checked robin territories to establish whether they had a nest, or if the nest had successfully fledged chicks. This often involved a lot of standing around watching a female Robin, seeing if she would fly to a nest. During these moments we were surrounded by the bush, listening to the many varied birds, and often they would come quite close. I had a large family group of rare Mohua/Yellowhead foraging in the trees amongst me, and once a couple of kiwis were chasing each other through the ferns in a large circle around me. Every kiwi encounter was special, and they could give you quite a surprise -- they make a lot of noise when they're running through the bush!
Can you tell us about your work on fishing vessels?
I worked for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) as a fisheries observer on commercial vessels. My role was to collect independent data on fishing methods, catch, and interactions with protected species. It provided my first introduction to seabirds, and watching massive albatross soaring over the waves quickly became a favourite part of being at sea. I enjoyed the smaller vessels where birds would sometimes bob on the water within arm's reach, giving a view of the detail of their features and sounds they make when squabbling with each other.
You've spent a lot of time in remote, wildlife-rich locations throughout New Zealand. Where has been your favourite location and why?
This is a tough one! There are still many places I would like to visit, or ones I've visited but would have to spend more time on. I have fond memories of islands for different reasons, whether it's the field team I worked with, the work I did there, or the wildlife I encountered.
If I had to choose one area to revisit it would be the Subantarctic islands - this is sort of cheating because we went to five different islands, but it had always been a dream to visit the area and the scale of some of the seabird colonies was incredible. I visited in 2020 with Heritage Expeditions on a Young Adventurer Scholarship and would love to spend more time there.
Where haven't you travelled to yet that is on your bucket list and why?
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. One of the other guests on the trip to the Subantarctic had been there and said it took the magnitude of wildlife to a different level again. Like the Subantarctic it is a haven for seabirds and marine mammals, a wildlife photographer's paradise!
Is there anyone in your field that inspires you?
I've worked with too many conservation superstars to list - the ones that stand out are incredibly passionate and dedicated to making Aotearoa/New Zealand a better place for our endemic species. They're an inspiration and I wish we could clone them! There are also many inspiring wildlife photographers that take an image and I think "Wow, I would be stoked to have captured that". It doesn't have to come from an established or specialised wildlife photographer, everyone has a different creative approach to a scene or encounter, and that helps keep me motivated to not fall into a rut of using the same photographic "recipe" when taking images.
Do you think wildlife and nature photography has an impact on people's relationship with the planet?
Absolutely! Science communication has a critical role to play to raise the profile of environmental and conservation issues. High-quality photography (and video) supports this by helping to build a connection to the reader/viewer, whether it's a cute shot or something more hard-hitting. Just look at how David Attenborough has become a household name, capturing people that otherwise may not seek out information on environmental or conservation issues. The key step is stimulating readers/viewers to take any action or make a change that will benefit the planet.
Discussions around conservation and the environment can feel pretty gloomy in 2022. What are some positive initiatives people should be aware of and what can we do to help?
Definitely, but there is still a lot of great work being done around the country that people can contribute to. These can be on the ground initiatives, for example volunteering with your local Forest and Bird branch, Ecosanctuary, or local community group that does trapping, weed control or planting. These are also great ways to meet fellow minded people.
Climate change will have a big impact on our environment and it can be daunting to know where to start, but Genless has great information and steps to help people reduce their carbon footprint.
If you don't mind some reading you can also submit on consultation documents put out by governmental organisations such as DOC or MPI. These are varied but may include topics such as proposed Marine Reserves, seabird research and mitigation, and changes to a conservation law.
What are you currently working on / Any upcoming projects etc?
I moved back home to Nelson at the end of last year, so am mostly getting up to speed with local wildlife spots and figuring out the best times and conditions to visit them. It's also a great place to photograph shorebirds which is good as I tend to focus on forest birds. My current dream shot idea is to take an underwater or split above/below shot of a Whio feeding in a river, though that will be extremely challenging!
Check out more of Leon's work here!