For last week’s Conservation Success Story, we looked at the black robin, whose recovery from the brink of extinction was a quite remarkable feat of endurance, both from the robins themselves and the team of New Zealand conservationists who worked day and night through the 1980s to sustain a healthy population. While we’re over in that part of the world, it doesn’t seem right not to head to the country’s southern tip and take a look at another bird which has made a fantastic (human-aided) recovery in the past 40 years – Strigops habroptila, the kakapo.
You may already be familiar with the world’s heaviest parrot. One of them famously tried to mate with zoologist/conservationist Mark Carwardine in the 2009 BBC documentary series Last Chance to See.
Kakapo used to roam vast swathes of New Zealand’s South Island. I say roam, because kakapo are flightless. And therein lay their main problem. For centuries, kakapo had happily plodded along on the ground and wandered up the odd low branch, eating fruits, seeds and shoots, and generally minding their own business. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, however, bringing with them ferrets, stoats, cats, rats, dogs and so on, the kakapos’ laid-back lifestyles were violently interrupted. A propensity to freeze when startled didn’t help much, and they made easy prey for these “invasive species”.
By the 1970s, things had become so bad that the kakapo was thought to be extinct in the wild. Between 1974 and 1977, 18 males were found in Fiordland (southwest New Zealand), but no females. Needless to say that the kakapo were in real trouble. Miraculously, however, a population of some 200 birds – including females – were discovered on Stewart Island, lying just 20 miles off the South Island’s southern coast. This population was also being depleted by non-native mammalian predators, particularly feral cats, but they still represented hope for the species.
And so efforts began to trans-locate the Stewart Island kakapo (numbering just 61 by the time they had all been moved) to four other islands where strict predator-monitoring could be maintained, and where the birds could live under the close watch of the New Zealand Wildlife Services’ team. By 1991, the team had established that the trans-located kakapo would breed despite having been moved to different islands. But their numbers were still perilously low. Following the deaths of several new-born chicks, the conservationists took the decision to intervene more directly to encourage the birds to breed and keep them healthy. In 1993, 80% of the remaining kakapo females were within the intensive management programme. Thanks to this programme, the kakapo population more or less stabilised through the 1990s, and “bumper” breeding seasons in 2001/2 and 2008/9 combined to catapult kakapo numbers above 100 for the first time since 1980!
Today, there are breeding kakapo populations (as of December 2016, 154 birds in total) on three predator-free islands: Codfish Island, Anchor Island, and Little Barrier Island. A small army of volunteers and professional conservationists work round the clock to ensure they remain healthy, safe and well looked after. This effort relies on public donations and other private funds. Every kakapo has been given its own name, but the above-pictured Sirocco acts as the species’ ambassador, travelling throughout New Zealand to raise awareness of the kakapos’ plight and fundraise for continued conservation efforts. He even has his own Facebook page.
One of the people responsible for the kakapos’ recovery? Yep, it’s that man again – Don Merton – a saviour of the black robin, also instrumental in the saving of the kakapo. Don (who sadly passed away in 2011) harboured ambitions to reintroduce kakapo to the New Zealand mainland, specifically to their last known stronghold in Fiordland – Sinbad Gully. While such progress may seem a long way off for the time being, it’s this vision that continues to drive efforts to protect the enigmatic kakapo.
If you feel like it, you can donate to the kakapo conservation programme here.
Featured image photo credit, Rod Morris (2010)