Years ago, I was on a mission to read everything that Douglas Adams had ever written when I came across his book Last Chance to See. A book he had written while visiting and researching some of the plant’s most endangered species such as the Yangzi River Dolphin, which sadly now has been declared extinct. Yet for another of these special, at-risk creatures the story is far more hopeful, and just goes to show what can be achieved when you have a Government behind you that actually gives a damn. This creature was a wonderful green feathery thing called the Kakapo. The world’s largest, flightless parrot. And I think it can be safely said, not one of the smartest. A native of New Zealand, much like myself, at the time of Douglas’ writing there were only some 50 of these wondrous birds left on the entire planet. It was going to be an uphill battle of epic proportions if they were to survive, but the NZ Government was up for the challenge.
The first thing needed was a safe area for the Kakapo to breed in. Given they are flightless they were easy prey for predators such as feral cats. An Island habitat was found and cleared of all predators hat might be a threat to the Kakapo, and then the remaining population were moved there and a breeding program established. It would be fair to say that the Kakapo does not make survival easy on itself. For a start they only mate once every three years, an the mating ritual itself is not only ridiculously complex but rather haphazard! The male Kakapo builds itself a kind of bowl in the ground, and then creates a number of paths leading to this bowl. Then he sits in the middle and makes a hell of a noise to attract a female. This is balled ‘booming’ and so you could say the male builds himself a ‘boombox’. Picture that! The chances of a female actually finding this booming bird are not brilliant. It’s not a full proof plan. Plus the ladies will only mate if there is an abundance of a certain type of berry around at the time. It’s a comedy of errors that would be hilarious if it wasn’t sending these amazing birds down the path to oblivion.
To find out more about the recovery program, and the good work the amazing rangers do in order to ensure the survival of these feathery monoliths we caught up with ranger, Tim Raemaekers.
Hundreds of years ago before the arrival of people and other mammals, the Kakapo was one of the predominant species of birds in New Zealand. “They live only in New Zealand and there is nothing else like them in the world,” Tim explains, “they have an engaging personality and can appear cute, solemn, melancholy, wise but always beautiful with their subtly mottled rich green plumage. Kakapo were formerly one of New Zealand’s most common bird species, but they have… declined to the verge of extinction. In the last 15 years or so the Kakapo population has increased with the help of intensive management, but there is a long way to go before their future is assured.”
Aside from their big personalities, Kakapo are alsounique in a number of ways. “They are one of New Zealand’s only completely herbivorous native birds (along with the Kereru), and have adapted their bodies and behaviour to fill an ecological niche all of their own,” says Tim, “their food of leaf bases, roots and fruits is poor in nutrition but super abundant in the NZ forests. In order to live off it, the Kakapo have evolved a number of adaptations.”
One of these adaptations involved giving up flight, which is very energy intensive. Lucking for the fluffy green parrots, their food source is easily accessible on the ground or by climbing trees and so they don’t really need to fly. “They have the lowest recorded base metabolic rate of any bird, so that they burn their energy slower. As a result they can survive on food that is all around them but that other birds cannot live off – so they have no competitors. This plant diet has meant that as well as being slow and flightless, they are big – in fact the world’s heaviest parrot. Being big and round also helps give Kakapo a higher thermal inertia so they can stay warm given that they are not generating heaps of heat flying around.”
The downside of being Earth-bound however is that the Kakapo became easy pickings for avian predators such as Haast’s Eagle, so to avoid them, the Kakapo became nocturnal, and is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. However while fine for adult birds, the Kakapo diet does not provide enough nutrition to rear chicks, which is why they only breed when there is an abundance, or “mast” fruiting of only specific trees. “ On their current home of Whenua Hou, the relevant tree is the Rimu,’ says Tim, “Rimu seed takes over a year to develop, and so in a mast year the Kakapo are triggered to begin their breeding cycle months before the fruit is ready to be fed to hungry chicks. This is also very useful for people wanting to predict breeding to help manage the population. The chicks themselves hatch as tiny, helpless balls of fluff, but grow very rapidly, fed by their mothers who do all the incubation and rearing work while the males are still busy booming… At about 6 months or maybe a bit longer, they leave their mother.”
Aside from having to deal with natural predators, the hapless Kakapo initially had a huge loss in numbers due to habitat reduction through land clearing and the burning of their forest homes. It was not a good time to be a large flightless parrot. “When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, forest clearance increased and a host of new pests were brought, “Tim adds, “dogs would have had a big impact, and the worst were probably stoats and ferrets, while weasels would have taken eggs, chicks and youngsters. The last viable Kakapo population survived around Port Pegasus and the Tin Range in Southern Stewart Island. They were discovered in the 70s and it was soon realised that all the remaining kakapo were vulnerable to predation by cats and were being hunted to extinction. Cat control programmes weren’t enough to halt the decline and so the Kakapo were transferred to offshore islands such as Whenua Hou, Codfish, Hauturu and Little Barrier.”
“These days, the Kakapo have two or three pretty safe island homes,” Tim continues, “the focus now is to grow the population and get the maximum amount of offspring from the Stewart Island founder birds (and the offspring of Richard Henry, the last Fiordland kakapo). The remaining Kakapo are not very genetically diverse and it’s crucial that we preserve as much diversity as possible … before these birds are lost. Otherwise they will get more and more inbred and breeding success is likely to decline so that they cannot sustain themselves.”
Action to raise Kakapo numbers didn’t happen overnight however, and heading into the 1990s Kakapo numbers were still declining. It was clear that something had to be done, but at the time the biggest problem faced was a fragmented population managed by various different authorities. “Breeding success was low and the population sank to its lowest number, 51 birds, in 1995. A decisive moment in that year was the formation of National Kakapo Team, responsible for managing all Kakapo, with a new focus on intensive, interventionist management including hand-rearing of chicks as necessary. Combined with eradications from Whenua Hou of possums, Weka (80s) and Kiore (1998), this has enabled the Kakapo population to more than double to its present number of 125.”
“The breeding programme has been very successful over the last 15 years or so, with a record year in 2009 which produced 33 chicks,” Tim adds, “in 2011 a further 11 chicks hatched although, since then, the population has declined slightly with some birds dying, due to ill health or old age. This is to be expected and we are very hopeful that the population will continue to increase during the next few years.”
Tim also has a big shout out for Douglas Adams, whom he says did a lot to raise awareness of the Kakapo’s plight through his book. “Kakapo were already famous in New Zealand, but Last Chance to See in its various incarnations was a big deal for international exposure. Many thousands of people now know about Kakapo who had never heard of them before, and we receive good will and contributions from all around the world. We now also collaborate with scientific, veterinary and behavioural experts from around the world.”
Helping to get the word out about these amazing birds is Kakapo superstar, Sirocco, possibly best known for trying to mate with the head of Mark Carwardine when he and Stephen Fry went to visit with the Kakapo some twenty years after Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine created a radio series of Last Chance to See. “Sirocco is our superstar ‘advocacy’ bird,” explains Tim, “he was hand-reared away from other Kakapo… and became imprinted on people, so he identifies with people and doesn’t perceive Kakapo as being the same as him, as it were. Other Kakapo do not have this trait and we do try to ensure that hand reared birds stay wild.”
“Sirocco loves interacting with people,” Tim continues, “and enjoys the spotlight. He isn’t interested in breeding with other Kakapo and is not great from a genetic perspective so he’s no use to growing the population. This makes him very suitable for advocacy work – in winter he visits publicly accessible islands and reserves such as Zealandia, Orokonui and Maungatautari. This is a fantastic opportunity for people to see a Kakapo in the flesh without spending a fortnight on demanding volunteer work. People turn up in their thousands to see Sirocco and the feedback has been fantastic on this experience.”
So how can we help these amazing green things get back on track? “It’s an old tune,” says Tim, “but one of the best ways to help Kakapo is to donate to the recovery programme. Kakapo conservation is still in a phase of intensive hands-on management. This is the only way to ensure their future at this stage, but it is expensive, especially with the costs of having everything on remote islands. You can also help the Kakapo just by being interested and getting the word out there about these amazing birds. The more interest in Kakapo, the more attractive it can be to a variety of people and entities to support.”
To find out more head to www.kakaporecovery.org.nz
Words: Jo Jette