Save the kiwi: New Zealand rallies to protect its iconic bird

Experts are combating to save the remaining 68,000 kiwis in a country once home to millions

Below a mottled sky, a lone ocean craft cuts across the water towards Kapiti Island. It’s been abandoned by people and gifted to the rare and vulnerable birds of New Zealand to forage undisturbed. Kiwi stepping carefully up the beach at midnight. Kokako waking no one with their shrill calls. And hihi flit freely through the dense native shrub. With no predators allowed, the birds are confident and thriving.

” New Zealanders are a shy and reclusive bunch, the kiwi is a bird we identify with ,” says Paul O’Shea, an administrator for Kiwis for Kiwi, a conservation group set up to save the bird from extinction.

” It’s as vital to protect the kiwi in New Zealand as it is to protect the orangutan in Borneo, the sumatran tiger in Indonesia, and the panda in China. Losing these species from the planet might not affect your day-to-day life, but it is a loss to the human experience .”

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There are 68,000 kiwi left in the country, and they are declining at the rate of 2% per year. A century ago, there were millions. Outside the predator-free zones, kiwi chicks and adults are killed and feed by dogs and cats, attacked by possums, stoats and rats, and hit by autoes at night.

These ancient, flightless and nocturnal animals are a wonder to conservationists the world over. They are descended from a “proto-kiwi” that lived about 50 million years ago, they hatch eggs so large they take days to exit their bodies, and are related to the extinct moa, the tetchy cassowary and the emu in Australia( known as the ratite household ).

Emma
Emma Neill, nation preservation worker. Photograph: Out Mout

On Kapiti, just 40 minutes by auto and ferry from downtown Wellington, Emma Neill, nation preservation worker, strays awestruck through the bush. The birdsong is cacophonous and musical, the style mainland New Zealand usedto sound.

Predator-free islands and sanctuaries are the highest conservation ranking for protected land in New Zealand, Neill explains. They are patrolled by rangers who live and run alone on the island, poised to tackle any threats: stoats which manage to “raft” over( on driftwood or debris after a cyclone ), rats that stow away on boats, or Argentinian ants in picnic baskets that breach the natural moat, and can swarm on chicks in the nest.

If an invader is seen on the island, they are tracked by trained dogs, trapped and then baited using the controversial 1080 poison.

A
A kiwi chick hatches at Auckland zoo. Photograph: Greg Bowker/ AP

” Having done conservation projects for so many years, humans tend to react only when there’s a crisis, and the crisis point is often too late to save anything ,” says the wildlife presenter Michaela Strachan, wearing a situate of kiwi earrings cut from paua shells.

” But this reaction seems to be happening before we’ve reached a crisis point, so I think it will make a difference. There is something about them that is just so full of character. I guess because they’re flightless and vulnerable, human beings warm to things that are vulnerable .”

In 2016, the government committed to making New Zealand pest-free by 2050. Every rat, stoat and possum must therefore be wiped out.

Sceptics abound: Strachan calls the goal ” unbelievable”, O’Shea from Kiwis for Kiwi says it’s “ambitious”, while Neill hopes she’s still alive to see the dreaming come true.

Michaela
Michaela Strachan discovers a freshly hatched kiwi egg. Photo: Out Mout

This month, the new Labour-coalition government announced the most significant funding increase for the Department of Conservation in 10 years, with NZ $80 m( PS41. 9m) flagged for pest-eradication efforts.

Brent Beavan, programme director for Predator Free 2050, tells the biggest impediment to saving the kiwi is domestic cats and dogs. But that’s a touchy subject in New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

To achieve the 2050 goal, a range of new technologies will have to be deployed in addition to pest-trapping and baiting, tells Beaven. Drones, bio-chemical agents and genetic modifiers are all being considered.

” It feels a bit like Everest at the moment, but I think we can have a really good whack at it. Momentum and enthusiasm is actually constructing ,” says Neill.” New Zealanders have grasped it, and have started to act in their everyday lives .”

Across the country, volunteer groups that set and check pest traps in preservation areas are growing in number, and traps are increasingly appeating in backyards. In Northland, people offer to take their dogs to kiwi repugnance train: an electric shock is administered to dissuade them from stalking kiwi. More people are locking their cats indoors at night.

Neill reckons the Maori worldview is becoming part of the New Zealand identity: we aren’t here to dominate mother nature, we’re here to protect it.

” We have something special here in New Zealand, we need to be careful to protect what we have ,” she says.” We don’t simply want our kids to have to look at our native birds on a chart in local schools classroom- of what New Zealand once had .”

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