BirdLife: The Magazine Jan-Mar 2018 - Page 13

W hoever said dinosaurs are extinct has never seen a kiwi. As dusk approaches, you can hear their calls echoing from New Zealand’s native forest. As you venture in, you spot their large, three-pronged footprints imprinted in the earth. And there’s nothing to prepare you for the sight of this unique flightless bird. Eyewitnesses have said that the only real way to describe a kiwi is like a vestige from the Jurassic era: big and heavy, it moves in a completely unique way, swaying its hindquarters to power its thick, strong legs. It’s a surreal sight. But unlike its dinosaurian ancestors, it doesn’t look like the kiwi needs to fear extinction any time soon. Thanks to nearly 30 years of dedication from government bodies, local conservation groups and the Māori community, this extraordinary family of birds is no longer in the danger zone. In fact, this year, two species of kiwi have become the stars of the Red List: Okarito Kiwi Apteryx rowi and Northern Brown Kiwi Apteryx mantelli have just been downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable. It’s a true underdog success story: the Okarito Kiwi (also known as Rowi) has increased from a mere 160 individuals in 1995 to 400-450 adults today. And Northern Brown Kiwi populations are estimated to be growing by over 2% a year. The reason for their decline was an age-old one: invasive species. In this case, stoats, ferrets and feral cats preying upon the eggs and chicks. And even the adult birds weren’t safe, with many Northern Brown Kiwis falling prey to wandering dogs – often the pets of ever-spreading human populations at the top of the North Island. Jan-Mar 2018 • birdlife Okarito Kiwi Apteryx rowi Photo Grant Maslowski 0 Searching for kiwi Photo Grant Maslowski 7 Northern Brown Kiwi Apteryx mantelli Photo Life on White 2 The reason for their decline was an age-old one: invasive species Something needed to be done. And so, in 1991, the Department of Conservation joined forces with the Bank of New Zealand and Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand) to create the National Kiwi Recovery Program. They knew that the best way to achieve something great is to break it into clearly-defined, manageable stages: these became the Kiwi Recovery Plans. The first Kiwi Recovery Plan involved gathering information: how many kiwis were left, where they were living, and what comprised their biggest threat. Nest predation, especially by stoats, was found to be the main cause of decline. Following lobbying by Forest & Bird, five large kiwi sanctuaries were established in the wild, with a commitment of NZ$ 2 million a year for research into how best to manage the kiwi and control the impacts of predators. But while they were busy researching methods of stoat control, faster action needed to be taken to increase juvenile survival. And so, Operation Nest Egg was born. The kiwi family lays the largest egg in relation to their body size of any bird species: up to a whopping 20% of the female’s body. Operation Nest Egg ensured that this huge amount of energy didn’t go to waste. The project removed kiwi eggs from the wild, hatched chicks in captivity and then raised them either in captivity or in a predator-free crèche. Once they reached a stoat-safe weight of around one kilogram, they were released back into the wild. And it worked – the technique was found to increase juvenile survival from a heartbreaking 5% to an encouraging 60%. 13