Kiwi pilot who helped Galapagos wildlife

Steve Collins with the Galapagos tortoises – the ancient creatures whose habitat he helped to save.

When Steve Collins began working as a shooter, killing and capturing deer from helicopters, and later training as a pilot, he had no idea those skills would lead to a part in the largest, most ambitious ecosystem restoration project in the world.

“Being involved in Project Isabela in the Galapagos Islands is the best job I've ever done in my life,” says Steve, who now lives at Tanners Point north of Katikati.

As helicopter operations manager and chief pilot, Steve was part of a team of experienced New Zealand pilots and shooters who, in 2002, went to Galapagos with the aim of exterminating goats decimating the islands' ecosystems.

“We killed more than 250,000 goats and more than 1000 donkeys. I'm not really into killing on that scale, but in this case it was essential,” says Steve, who tells the stories of his time on Galapagos in his book ‘Steve Collins Hunter Pilot – New Zealand – Galapagos Islands'.

The aim of the project was the complete removal of all feral goats from Pinta, Santiago, and northern Isabela, to allow the reestablishment of natural ecological conditions and preserve the islands' unique flora and fauna.

“Ever since I read a National Geographic article about Galapagos, I wanted to go there.” Not only did he get to visit – Steve also helped make a dramatic difference to the islands, but none of that would have been possible had he not been encouraged by older brother, pilot Joe Collins and Steve's boss and helicopter operator Bernie Milroy, to train as a pilot.

“I told Bernie I was too dumb to be a pilot and his reply was ‘if those bastards can do it, so can you. Do you think they are smarter than you?' I had never thought of it like that before.”

So Steve enrolled in the Nelson Aviation College owned and operated by Wally Wagdendonk, whose patience and belief in him Steve credits with the fact he was able to pass his theory exams. Then began the fun part – flying.

“The theory is what I found hardest. The practical side of flying a helicopter is easy. As it is for any skilled operator of machinery – the helicopter becomes an extension of yourself.”

In 38 years of flying helicopters, Steve clocked up more than 15,500 hours, in deer shooting and recovery and as a tourist operator in New Zealand; his involvement in the Isabela Project and later relocating and monitoring wildlife in the USA, Mexico and Canada. Those latter adventures are to be the subject of his second book, due out later this year.

It was while he was caring fulltime for his elderly mother Rai that she encouraged Steve to write the stories of his extraordinary life as a hunter pilot. “Mum encouraged me to write the stories for my children and grandchildren but I had no idea how to do that.” So Steve set about learning to write by enrolling in a course run by Jenny Argante at the Waiariki Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology).

Perhaps the putting words on paper skills initially needed honing, but it's evident from his book that Steve is a natural story teller. His style is engaging and descriptive, giving the reader an insight into the people, the places, the drama and the beautiful environments he experienced in nearly four decades in one of the most challenging and potentially dangerous occupations there are.

“Steve Collins Hunter Pilot – New Zealand – Galapagos Islands” is available on line at and from Paper Plus in Katikati.


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