Gideon Climo

Kakapo – Bird on the brink

In a land renowned for its unusual birds, the kakapo—a giant flightless nocturnal parrot with a bizarre breeding system—has to be one of the strangest. Although it has been lingering perilously close to extinction for the past half century, there is renewed hope that this icon of conservation effort has a future after all.

Written by       Photographed by Rod Morris

For a moment before it fell down, the helicopter hovered above the water like a dragonfly, straining against gravity, and the three men inside it braced for the in­evitable. Their reaction was well rehearsed: one arm shielding the head, the other hand finding and gripping the doorknob of an emergency exit. The impact was soft as the cabin splashed into the water and briefly bobbed like a buoy. Then, top-heavy with the weight of the engine, the machine flipped upside-down and began to sink, a bubble of safety turn­ing into a death trap for its occupants. through every crevice the water surged in, swirling into froth until the inside of the cabin felt like a washing machine, with a pocket of air rapidly shrinking against the floor that was now the ceiling.

The three men, still strapped to their seats and disoriented by the capsize, were tense with anticipation, but they knew they must wait: outside the cabin the helicop­ter’s rotor might still be scything the water like the blades of a blender. there is a procedure to this chaos, and the men re­mained calm. they took a final gasp of disappearing air, just as the swirling whitewater blurred their vision. “one . . . two . . . three,” they paced their breathless wait, “. . . four . . . FIVE! Push the door open. Unbuckle the seat belt. Go!”

They wormed their way out and bolted towards the light and air, now several metres above them. two of the men burst through the surface and sucked in rapid lungfuls of air, but the third one breathed normally, displaying remarkable calm. “that was good, gentlemen,” he said, floating alongside them, “but we’ll do it again, just so that you really get it nailed.”

Kakapo were once abundant throughout New Zealand's two main islands (and possibly Stewart Island) and featured regularly in both Maori and European backcountry cuisine, but by the time this photograph of an explorers' camp in Fiordland was taken in 1888 (with Quintin Mackinnon, of Milford Track fame, in the centre, and an obliging kakapo perched above the fireplace), almost no none remained in the North Island. Even in the South Island, the kakapo's best days were well behind it.
Kakapo were once abundant throughout New Zealand’s two main islands (and possibly Stewart Island) and featured regularly in both Maori and European backcountry cuisine, but by the time this photograph of an explorers’ camp in Fiordland was taken in 1888 (with Quintin Mackinnon, of Milford Track fame, in the centre, and an obliging kakapo perched above the fireplace), almost no none remained in the North Island. Even in the South Island, the kakapo’s best days were well behind it.

A crane was already lifting the mocked-up helicopter out of the pool, readying it for another simulated crash, and at poolside more people in white overalls nervously awaited their turn. this was not an exercise for elite military forces or the coastguard, nor an emer­gency drill for workers on the nearby Taranaki offshore oil rigs, even if the venue and instructors suggested other­wise. Yet the 14 men and women undertaking this un­derwater escape training in New Plymouth were special forces of a sort. By the time they had completed their two weeks of aquanautics, they would also have learned how to skipper an inflatable craft through surf that would fling their boat two or three metres into the air, and how to fish each other out of the breakers should someone fall overboard. they would have passed a run–swim–run Iron man-like test to become qualified lifesavers.

And lifesavers is exactly what they are. the irony is that their SAS-style training is preparing them to save and protect one of the world’s gentlest and most peaceful creatures, the kakapo—flightless, noctur­nal, solitary, and hopelessly adorable.

The kakapo must be the cuddliest of all living things. Soft, fluffy and intelligent, this Persian cat of a parrot has plumage the colour of fresh moss and a scent of papaya. It has no fear of humans. A wild kakapo will clamber up your leg and arm and sit on your shoulder, nibbling gently at your cheek and ears or preening your hair. It can be playful like a kitten or ap­pear owlishly wise, its beady chocolate-coloured eyes holding your gaze, then drifting out of focus, looking through you like the stare of a Buddhist monk.

The bird has already stolen many hearts. Don Merton, standing wet at the edge of the training pool, can’t bear the thought that if this helicopter crash hap­pened in real life, he’d most likely have with him several cat boxes containing kakapo, which he would probably have to leave behind.

For the past 40 years, Merton has been an ambulance man for endangered birds. He is best known for the rescue of the Chatham Islands black robin, whose num­bers once slumped to five, just one of which was a productive female, but he was also instrumental in snatching the last re­maining South Island saddlebacks from rat-infested Big South Cape Island, off the coast of Stewart Island, and has helped save a number of other species on the Sey­chelles, Mauritius and Christmas Island. No other conservationist in the world has been directly involved in as many bird res­cues as Merton, says Christoph Imboden, a former director of BirdLife Interna­tional, a global conservation agency. And no other bird has provided Merton with such a challenge as the kakapo.

In the 1970s, when the Wildlife Service made an all-out effort to find and save the vanishing kakapo, inaccessible parts of Fiordland-such as this spur named "Kakapo Castle," south of Milford Sound-held the last remaining mainland birds, which all proved to be males.
In the 1970s, when the Wildlife Service made an all-out effort to find and save the vanishing kakapo, inaccessible parts of Fiordland-such as this spur named “Kakapo Castle,” south of Milford Sound-held the last remaining mainland birds, which all proved to be males.

This flightless oddity was once abun­dant throughout New Zealand, from sea level to the snow line. “The birds used to be in dozens round the camp, screeching and yelling like a lot of demons, and at times it was impossible to sleep for the noise,” wrote the West Coast explorer Charlie Douglas. On moonlit nights, he continued, you could shake a tree and the kakapo would fall down like apples. Hawkes Bay farmer–naturalist Herbert Guthrie-Smith claimed that “the diggers lived on them” in the Takaka Valley, prais­ing the delicious and fruity white meat for being “as good eating as a barnyard fowl.” Another writer added: “in Otago during the construction of a certain road, the Night Parrot was slaughtered in great numbers, one bird making ‘a plenteous meal for two men’.”

Today, there are only 62 birds left-26 females and 36 males—each with a name, a radio transmitter and a long history of medical check-ups. Banished from their natural range, they survive only on a few remote offshore islands: Whenua Hou/ Codfish Island, off Stewart Island, Te Hoiere/Maud Island, in the Marlborough Sounds, and various temporary holding is­lands—natural fortresses guarded by the sea. Hence the exercises in surf rescue, the life-raft scenarios and the simulated heli­copter crashes, because even getting to these islands can be an adventure. It is a measure of the kakapo’s plight that the conservation staff responsible for its well­being even engage in war-game manoeu­vres that simulate an attempt to kidnap the birds from their sanctuaries. Kakapo have become so precious that their caretakers leave nothing to chance.

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No other creature in the pantheon of New Zealand’s endemic fauna has ever attracted so much attention, effort and funding, and none is more critically endangered and vulnerable. Yet for all the kakapo’s ecological charisma and PR ce­lebrity, few people ever get it in the wild—and not just because its sanctuaries are out of bounds to all but key personnel. You could walk its island forests and scrublands for days and never see a bird. The kakapo evolved with blind and total faith in its perfect camouflage, and the birds blend into the foliage so well that trying to see them is like picking the 3-D shapes out of Magic Eye pictures.

Chris Hughes, who worked as a kakapo volunteer in Fiordland in the early 1980s, told me how he once radio-tracked and pinpointed a bird to a single bush, then looked hard until his eyes hurt but still could not see it. And then the kakapo blinked, and the movement betrayed it. The bird was sitting, Hughes recalled, at eye level, less than an arm’s reach away. The “freeze and blend in” self-preservation strategy worked well against New Zealand’s eagle-vision raptors, but against introduced tree-climbing predators that hunted by smell, such behaviour was the kakapo’s undoing.

“If the bird only knew its powers, it wouldn’t fall such an easy prey [to] stoats and ferrets,” Charlie Douglas wrote in his diaries. “One grasp of his powerful claws would crush either of those animals, but he has no idea of attack or defence.”

Kakapo feathers are distinctive not only for their mossy colour but also for their softness and pleasant fragrance.
Kakapo feathers are distinctive not only for their mossy colour but also for their softness and pleasant fragrance.

There was once a similar bird—similar in circumstances and certain aspects of be­haviour, not in appearance—which lived in what is now Mauritius, a plateau of vol­canic cones east of Madagascar roughly the size of Stewart Island. Like the kakapo, the bird was endemic and a giant of its kind. Too heavy to fly, it walked every­where and nested on the ground, leaving its young unguarded because the island was still a garden that knew no Cain. (God first made Mauritius, then modelled heaven on it, Mark Twain would later write.) Like the kakapo, the bird was nu­merous, widespread and long-lived but a slow and infrequent breeder, which meant it could not bounce back quickly once its population had been dented.

To the first people who saw it, armed with hunting clubs and driven by hunger, the bird was as outlandish as it was fear­less, though its fearlessness was not cour­age, rather an innocent incomprehension of what was coming its way. Like the kakapo, too, the bird made exceptionally good eating, and that ultimately led to its demise. It vanished so rapidly and com­pletely that no stuffed specimen exists and we don’t even know the colour of its plumage. We have condensed its sad story into a sound-bite collocation that tolls like the epitome of finality: dead as a dodo.

And so, 300 years later, the story of the kakapo is one of deja vu, almost right up to its mournful finale. We might well now be saying “dead as a kakapo” were it not for a handful of dedicated New Zealanders who are determined not to see a repeat of the dodo story on our shores. For the past four decades, in an effort unprecedented in the annals of conservation, they have been bat­tling to preserve the species. It has been largely a losing battle: a steep decline in numbers halted perilously close to extinction, the remaining population stable but aging, and time steadily running out. Re­cently, however, the tide has turned. And not a moment too soon, according to Don Merton, who has been at the forefront of the effort for the past 28 years, because, as he says: “If we can’t save the kakapo, our flagship species and number one conser­vation priority, what hope is there for all the other, less glamorous critters?”

The decline of the kakapo is textbook stuff. Maori hunted it with gusto, and their dogs and the kiore they introduced deci­mated the population. By the time Euro­peans arrived the bird was largely gone from the North Island. The new immi­grants, with their entourage of pets and vermin, accelerated the decline, and by the early decades of the 20th century the kakapo had become extremely rare in the South Island as well.

Male kakapo use networks of tracks and bowls on display grounds called arenas during the breeding season to compete for the attention of females-a courtship behaviour known as lekking. The same tracks and bowls are thought to remain in operation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years-as long as there are birds to use them. The overgrown state of the track at left- in Fiordland's Transit Valley-reflects the sad reality that kakapo have disappeared from the area.
Male kakapo use networks of tracks and bowls on display grounds called arenas during the breeding season to compete for the attention of females-a courtship behaviour known as lekking. The same tracks and bowls are thought to remain in operation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years-as long as there are birds to use them. The overgrown state of the track at left- in Fiordland’s Transit Valley-reflects the sad reality that kakapo have disappeared from the area.

Faced with the imminent extinction of the species, the Wildlife Service (pred­ecessor of the Department of Conserva­tion) organised over 60 search expeditions between 1949 and 1973, some in north­west Nelson and the Tararua Range, but most of them in Fiordland. The inaccess­ible southern mountains, where beech for­ests cling to near-vertical valley walls and often, overloaded with rain or snow, peel off like wet wallpaper, had only just yielded up the “lost” takahe (see New Zea­land Geographic, Issue 41), and it soon be­came apparent they could be the final bas­tion of the kakapo as well. In the 1960s, five birds, all male, were trapped in Tutuko Valley, near Milford Sound, and another one in Sinbad Gully, under Mitre Peak, but as almost nothing was known about their habits and needs, all died at the Mt Bruce Native Bird Reserve in Wairarapa (recently renamed the Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre).

Not until February 1974 was another kakapo discovered. By then it had been established that the birds favoured so-called kakapo gardens—areas where the beech forest had been broken up by an avalanche, creating conditions for faster-growing herbs, tussocks and berry plants to flourish. In one such area, Esperance Valley, Don Merton heard a kakapo call­ing and managed to record its voice. He played back this skraark call further down the valley, and the results were astonish­ing. A cacophony of rebuttals burst from the scrub: shrieks and screams, donkey brays and pig squeals, rooster crows and cat purrs—the vocalisations of a single excited kakapo.

It took another two weeks to trap the bird, which was named Jonathan Livingston Kakapo. He was a sorry-look­ing thing, old and bedraggled, but his dis­covery gave renewed hope that the species could be saved. There followed a period of even more intense searches, with newly introduced helicopters allowing easy ac­cess to the kakapo’s eyries high on the flanks of the Fiordland mountains, where the remnant mainland population was making its final stand.

Three more years of combing the region for sounds and signs resulted in 17 birds and a mystery. The searchers had found networks of immaculately kept tracks punctuated with half-metre-wide bowls, their edges trimmed to perfection. It was, one of the finders, Rod Morris, recalled, as if archaeologists had stumbled across the ruins of an ancient civilisation swallowed by the forest. Suddenly, the Maori lore which told of a whawharua—a hollow where each tribe of kakapo gath­ered to perform unusual nightly rituals—began making more sense. Could these elaborate constructions have something to do with breeding?

The bowl here, on Pearl Island, has been kept fastidiously tidy by its owner.
The bowl here, on Pearl Island, has been kept fastidiously tidy by its owner.

There was one more sound that so far had gone unrecorded—a sound as of someone blowing across the top of an empty milk bottle with the power of a fog horn and the regularity of a heartbeat.

This was the male kakapo booming—sit­ting inside the amphi­theatre of his bowl, in­flated into a feathered balloon, sending out a pulsing, low-frequency love call. The bowls were often fashioned and positioned in such a way that the rock wall surrounding them acted as reflec­tors and amplifiers, di­recting the calls down and across the valleys. O0000m! O0000m! O0000m! The long-2 wave hum could travel up to five kilometres and curve round ob­stacles. It carried on like a tribal drum through the Fiordland summer nights.

Alas, the booming went unanswered. All 18 birds found and caught in Fiordland turned out to be males. There were possibly no females left. If that were so, technically speaking the species was extinct. The last booming was heard in two valleys near Milford Sound in 1987. Then the kakapo gardens fell silent.

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All was not lost, however, for in a mi­raculous reprise the kakapo would get a second chance. While the Fiordland booming was fading, a 200-strong population of kakapo was discov­ered in the south of Stewart Island, appar­ently untroubled by introduced predators.

In 1977, in an area which came to be called Arena Ridge, searchers found a network of 23 freshly used track-and-bowl systems. This arena, the biologists concluded, was a kind of a kakapo nightclub where the males would gather—often walking from several kilometres away—to boom and prance and display, each in his own manicured “court” or mini-territory, hoping to lure in an elu­sive female. But nobody had seen a female since the early 1900s.

Merton and his colleagues were becom­ing increasingly alarmed by the absence of females in this all-old-boys fraternity. Then, in 1980, came the long-awaited breakthrough. While searching near camp, a spaniel named Jasper picked up a kakapo scent and led its handler, Gary Aburn, to the bird, which was smaller, more slender and greener than all others previously caught. Merton examined the pattern of splotches on its primary feathers—a method of distinguishing the sexes of par­rots. The new bird, named Mandy, did not have the telltale male mottling on the tips of its primaries. It was a female—the first identified since the time of pioneering kakapo conservationist Richard Henry (see sidebar page xx).

Soon more were found, and then their nests and chicks. The fate of the species had finally turned for the better; but this time, too, the jubilations would be short-lived. Mandy was never seen again, and, as the search for more kakapo continued, it began turning up not only live birds but, more and more frequently, their half-eaten carcasses.

Lisa, a precious female, was lost for 13 years on Hauturu/Little Barrier Island. When found in 1999 she was sitting on three eggs, which were taken to DoC's rearing unit at Burwood Bush, near Te Anau, for final incubation and hand-rearing. Three females-Ellie, Aranga and Hauturu-resulted, seen here as fledglings on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island at five months of age. The unexpected addition of four females to the population gave the programme to save the kakapo a tremendous boost at a time when females were in short supply.
Lisa, a precious female, was lost for 13 years on Hauturu/Little Barrier Island. When found in 1999 she was sitting on three eggs, which were taken to DoC’s rearing unit at Burwood Bush, near Te Anau, for final incubation and hand-rearing. Three females-Ellie, Aranga and Hauturu-resulted, seen here as fledglings on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island at five months of age. The unexpected addition of four females to the population gave the programme to save the kakapo a tremendous boost at a time when females were in short supply.
One of the many peculiarities of the kakapo is the booming call made the male makes to attract the attention of females. To produce the sound, which can carry for kilometres, the male inflates his body to the size of a basketball and often remains puffed up all night. Booming usually takes place in or near a bowl, and the bird often rotates slowly, broadcasting his courtship message to the four winds. Males have been found to boom up to 1000 times per hour, occasionally for as long as 17 hours at a stretch, and to continue for two to three months in years when breeding occurs. Rod Morris, who took this photograph of a booming male on Stewart Island with a light-intensifying device, believes booming is a hiccup-like reflex: once commenced, it is almost beyond the bird’s control.

Feral cats had developed a taste for kakapo, and within five years these bushwise and feisty predators halved the remaining kakapo population. Just as in Fiordland, searchers realised they were rid­ing a bow-wave of extinction. This time, however, they would take more radical measures.

Between 1982 and 1992, all 61 surviving Stewart Island kakapo were caught and transferred to safe island sanctuaries: Cod­fish, Maud and Little Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 55). The kakapo’s wild days were over. From now on, constant interisland trans­fers and airlifts out of trouble would be­come the norm in kakapo life. While a long-term solution to their predicament was being sought, the birds would remain refugees in their own homeland.

One evening in early April 1999, as the seasons were turning and winter storms were edging in from the Southern Ocean, I walked with photographer Rod Morris through wet rimu forest down from the summit of Codfish Island. We each car­ried a plastic cat box housing a kakapo. The boxes were heavy, and every few hun­dred metres we stopped to swap hands and to catch a glimpse of the birds: a youngster named Sirocco in Morris’s cage, a female called Hoki in mine.

The birds had just been ferried in from Pearl Island—at the entrance of Port Pegasus, on the eastern side of Stewart Island—their temporary home while 1396 ha Whenua Hou Nature Reserve was being purged of any remaining ver­min. Back in the mid-1980s, possums had been eradicated from Codfish, and even egg-stealing weka removed, and now, hav­ing been blitzed with 22 air-dropped tonnes of poison pellets, the island had been declared a predator-free “kakaporium”—the safest haven the birds would ever know.

At the release site I opened the grille door of my cage and Hoki stomped out angrily, dragging her brown tail like a hand-baggage trolley, and vanished in the undergrowth. Hold was the star of several media appearances in the early 1990s when, rescued as a starving chick from Codfish Island, she became the first ever kakapo to be successfully hand-reared. (She also fea­tured on the cover of Issue 15 of New Zealand Geographic.) She is a free agent now, and tends to shun human company.

Technical innovation- a hallmark ofthe kakapo recovery programme- has given rise to some unusual devices, such as this imitation motorised bird used for sperm collection. Alas, "Cloe" (short for cloaca), a radio-controlled creation from the fertile mind of kakapo biologist Graeme Elliott, did not live up to expectations.
Technical innovation- a hallmark ofthe kakapo recovery programme- has given rise to some unusual devices, such as this imitation motorised bird used for sperm collection. Alas, “Cloe” (short for cloaca), a radio-controlled creation from the fertile mind of kakapo biologist Graeme Elliott, did not live up to expectations.

On the other hand, Sirocco, also hand-reared, was in no hurry to leave. Once out of his box, he shuffled up a horizontal branch level with my face and stretched his legs in a ballerina-like posture, using his wings for balance. His wings looked capa­ble of carrying the bird away in flight, but of course they weren’t. Kakapo flap their wings only to get more climbing momenturn or to arrest a jump from a tree.

I reached out slowly and Sirocco tasted my hand with his stubby beak, perhaps checking if it contained a morsel of his favourite kumara, then leapt on to my arm and cramponed up to perch on my shoul­der. His flat, owl-like face had wide, brown discs around the eyes, and his beak was almost lost amid feathery whiskers. He stretched out to reach a fresh shoot of a creeping fern, then—Crrrunch! Crrrunch! Chomp! Chomp!—he began to munch nois­ily. As his fruity scent wafted past my nos­trils, I could see why the DoC kakapo recovery team is inundated with applica­tions from those wanting to work with the bird. Such is the competition for places on the team that even unpaid volunteers of­ten have degrees in zoology and ecological science.

Not that the “-ologies” are of much use when working with this avian nonpareil. Saving the species has become something of a mathematical riddle, an act of rebalancing the equation so that the birds breed faster than they die out. But, as kakapo workers have discovered, creating safe havens and putting all the adult birds together does not necessarily add up to the production of more kakapo.

Kakapo are notoriously slow breeders, their courtships and matings about as frequent as the Olympic Games. The dis­covery of the track-and-bowl systems in Fiordland led Merton and his then-protégé Rod Morris to propose that kakapo displayed courtship behaviour called lekking, similar to that of some birds of paradise, pheasants and grouse and the capercaillie. No other parrot, and no other flightless bird, behaves in this way.

Unable to monopolise or defend large territories, males of lekking species gather in prominent areas and set up miniature “courts,” often in close proximity, and dis­play competitively to any females. There is a lot of mock fighting and mucho macho braggadocio. Although unique to the kakapo among New Zealand birds, the ritual is familiar to city-dwellers. Every Friday night you can see it in the lek downtown, where young bucks drive around in their souped-up cars, their subwoofers booming out a hopeful techno beat to attract watching females.

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One of the few people to have seen a male kakapo displaying is Rod Morris, whose sense for being in the right places at the most opportune times has led him from the ranks of the Wildlife Service to the elite of world-class natural history filmmakers and photographers. (A number of his images appear in this story.) One night in Fiordland’s Sinbad Gully, lighting his way with a red-filtered torch, Morris stepped into a track-and-bowl sys­tem and a kakapo began to dance for him. In Wild South, a book he co-authored, Morris recounted: “. . . the bird spread its wings like a butterfly, and began waving them slowly. He clicked his beak and started swaying from one foot to the other. He lowered his head, and rhythmi­cally treading the ground on alternate feet began slowly moving towards me, coming closer and closer until he was only about two metres away. Then he began turning around, still coming towards me, only now he was walking backwards! He rocked from one foot to the other until his tail touched my boot and then he just stopped, with his back towards me, his head low­ered, and his wings widespread—they were intricately patterned like the wings of a moth or the tail of a peacock.” For the rest of the night the kakapo followed Mor­ris around, dancing again and again, but instantly losing interest in him every time he stepped outside the display area.

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Finding out just what triggers the lekking—and the breeding—has been one of the cruxes of kakapo re­covery, a brain-twister with multiple variables. The most consistent prompt for breeding is the intense fruiting, or masting, of plants rich in turpentine: rimu on Whenua Hou and perhaps kauri on Hauturu. (All kakapo were removed from Hauturu in 1998/1999, as the island was proving too large and rugged to allow in­tensive population management.) Supple­mentary feeding helps keep the birds in good condition, and hence more likely to breed, so the birds are now regularly of­fered specially designed pellets made of a mixture of nuts and seeds. Extra food is crucial in years when breeding is triggered by mast fruiting but the fruit aborts before ripening. This happened on Whenua Hou in 1992, and the chicks starved.

But there are still surprises, and not even Merton claims to fully understand the com­plexities of kakapo breeding. In early 1999, while on hold at Pearl Island, five females nested and produced 14 eggs. In the same season, Lisa, the last female kakapo remain­ing on Hauturu—who had not been seen for 13 years—was rediscovered incubating three eggs. Six juveniles survived, includ­ing four females—the best recruitment in the history of the rescue programme.

Female kakapo are devoted mothers, but since they are all solo parents they must leave their eggs and chicks unguarded for long periods each night while they forage. Before the advent of mammalian predators their absences were of little consequence, but ground- level nests of eggs or chicks are like fast-food outlets to rats and their ilk, and now the only safe place for kakapo to breed is on predator-free islands. Even in these havens, kakapo workers take no chances, installing infrared movement sensors and surveillance cameras at all nests.
Female kakapo are devoted mothers, but since they are all solo parents they must leave their eggs and chicks unguarded for long periods each night while they forage. Before the advent of mammalian predators their absences were of little consequence, but ground- level nests of eggs or chicks are like fast-food outlets to rats and their ilk, and now the only safe place for kakapo to breed is on predator-free islands. Even in these havens, kakapo workers take no chances, installing infrared movement sensors and surveillance cameras at all nests.

Over the years, this programme has been through some shaky times, partly because there are still so many unknowns about the birds, but also because of the hobbling ef­fects of political pressure and bureaucratic constraints. Following an external review in 1994, executive control over budget, strategy, staff and all things kakapo was put in the hands of three people: Paul Jansen, Graeme Elliott and Merton—all of whom have clocked up many years in grassroots conservation. Jansen, the programme leader, has quietly emphatic manners and the reputation of a man who gets things done. Elliott, the team’s scientist, is a thinker and electronics tinkerer, responsi­ble for much of the innovative technology now employed in the field. Merton, with unrivalled knowledge and experience of kakapo, is the prime architect of the close-order management strategy for the birds, adapted from his black robin work. Since 1995, the trio has put the kakapo on a fast track to recovery—well, fast in kakapo terms.

In the avian world, where life is but a short sprint, kakapo are the marathon run­ners—possibly the longest lived of all birds. Many of those alive today were al­ready mature adults when they were found in the mid-1970s, and biologists estimate a typical kakapo life span to be around 60 years, perhaps more. Like tuatara, they seem timeless. Their metabolism is so un­hurried they can digest foods containing toxins that would kill humans or make them sick, like the leaves and fruit of the native tutu, and poroporo berries—both kakapo favourites.

And still the bizarre night parrots keep surprising their caretakers. Graeme Elliott, in an effort to breathe a little more enthusiasm into the birds’ courtship, has tried injecting selected rimu trees with a hormone to induce the trees to produce more fruit—so far the most consistent kakapo aphrodisiac. He has also developed a “boom box”—a portable, weatherproof stereo system which, placed near a lek, automatically comes on at night, blaring out the boom! boom! sound to spur the males into song.

In 1998, kakapo bred successfully on Maud Island—but without the benefit of a boom box and without a rimu tree in sight.

The event on Maud was all the more significant for taking place in an extremely modified environment, showing that, de­spite appearing to be stuck in an ecologi­cal time warp, the kakapo is an adaptable creature. Maud Island is the 309 ha tip of a mountain that was flooded when the sea level rose. It was farmed until 1975, when the Royal New Zealand Forest and Bird Society successfully campaigned to buy it and turn it into a nature reserve. Most of the island had been cleared of its original forest, and one corner had been planted in pines. Remarkably, it was in the radiata that the kakapo nested.

Most kakapo now reside on Whenua Hou, an island west ofStewart Island which was cleared ofpossums, weka and rats to create a safe haven. Locating the birds on the 1396 ha scrub- and forest-covered island is a challenge made easier by the use of radiotelemetry, but the method is not foolproof: the kakapo's transmitters can become detached, in which case dogs are brought in to sniff out the escapees.
Most kakapo now reside on Whenua Hou, an island west ofStewart Island which was cleared ofpossums, weka and rats to create a safe haven. Locating the birds on the 1396 ha scrub- and forest-covered island is a challenge made easier by the use of radiotelemetry, but the method is not foolproof: the kakapo’s
transmitters can become detached, in which case dogs are brought in to sniff out the escapees.

By late December 1998, all four of Maud’s males were booming, and soon mating signs—tufts of down and feathers near the track-and-bowl area—were found. Then, on the island’s west-facing slope, where the setting sun dapples through the trees and brown pine needles muffle one’s footsteps, Merton and others discovered a nest with three eggs under sparse bracken cover on a slope so steep the subsequent track cut up it was a wind­ing staircase of 140 steps.

The find was such a momentous event that Merton and his colleagues took no chances with the safety of their charges. The three chicks that hatched were off­spring of Richard Henry, the last and only known surviving Fiordland kakapo. “We’ve waited more than 20 years for this nest,” Merton said at the time. “It must succeed!” And so the intervention began. Every time the mother, named Flossie, left the nest to forage—generally at around 2 or 3 A.M.-a stealthy construc­tion crew moved in.

First, a metre-high retaining wall was erected on the lower side of the nest to prevent the eggs from rolling down the hill. Next a plywood roof was added. Then a drain was dug on the upslope to divert any possible flooding. A piece of plastic pipe became an entrance tunnel, and an infra-red beam, wired to a door chime, was placed across the entrance to alert nest minders when the mother left for her nightly perambulations. A mini­ature video surveillance camera was placed inside the nest to keep an electronic eye on the chicks. Later, a play­ground was added. It was as if a person living in a shanty had left for a short walk and returned to find a prefab house with a sundeck, and a sand pit for the kids.

Not showing the least surprise, Flossie and the youngsters took the alterations in their goosestep stride. All the while, a roster of nest minders camped in a tent 80 metres away, ready to dash in to deal with any emergency. Electronic surveillance and nest minding would become standard procedure with all subsequent nests.

A fabric scoop on the end ofa ski pole makes a useful device for extracting chicks from deep hideaways when weighing and measuring is to be carried out. Females feed young chicks (such as the 12- day-old in the bottom photograph) by regurgitating the soft parts ofplants, including fruit and shoots, but older chicks are given less digested fruit and seeds.
A fabric scoop on the end ofa ski pole makes a useful device for extracting chicks from deep hideaways when weighing and measuring is to be carried out. Females feed young chicks (such as the 12- day-old in the bottom photograph) by regurgitating the soft parts ofplants, including
fruit and shoots, but older chicks are given less digested fruit and seeds.

56_Kakapo_body13

Under this intensive management re­gime 12 juveniles were raised in three seasons, bringing the population to 62 birds. Then things went quiet on the kakapo front. Two years passed after my walk in the Whenua Hou forest with Rod Morris to release Hoki and Sirocco. Merton travelled to the Seychelles on an­other threatened-species rescue mission. Elliott was back in his shed tinkering with more electronic wizardry. He and Jansen refined the makeshift Maud Island nest-minding system into a ready-to-go “Nest Kit,” which, as well as the nonstop infra­red surveillance system, featured a panic button in the nest-minders’ tent which would set off an explosion of smoke and noise in the nest, frightening away any nosy predators. There was also—a homely touch—a miniature electric blanket with a thermostat and a fleece pillowcase to keep the eggs and, if they needed it, the chicks warm during their mother’s absences.

Elliott’s piece de resistance is called Snark, a kind of kakapo radar which indi­vidually logs every bird that passes within a 10 m radius. Placed in an active court­ship area, this minicomputer keeps track of visiting females, alerting staff of possi­ble matings. When positioned next to a supplementary feeding station, it records which birds feed and for how long. The platform from which a kakapo can reach its favourite morsels is also an electronic weighing station.

Not that all the kakapo gear is so high-tech. Merton’s preferred rat bait is a con­coction of cereal, white chocolate and the anticoagulant brodifacoum, dished into one of Mrs Merton’s muffin tins and coated with candle wax for waterproof­ing. His tool for extracting kakapo eggs and chicks from hard-to-reach nests is a modified spaghetti strainer taped to the end of a telescopic ski pole. This balance of the new and the old, a blend of the micro­chip and the Swannie, has worked well, and for the past two years it has been fine-tuned while everyone waited for the kakapo to decide to breed again.

[chapter break]

In January 2001, the word from Codfish Island was that the coming summer season could be “it”—the big one. A bumper crop of rimu fruit was starting to develop, so the recovery team moved into high gear, bringing all 21 females of breeding age on to the island.

In September, the birds were retrained to lift the lids of the supplementary feed hoppers—an essential precaution in case the rimu crop failed, as it had on all three previous masting occasions. More than 100 volunteers was rostered to take two-week stints as nest minders through the critical period of February to May 2002.

“This is our moment of truth,” Merton told me. “For the first time ever we have all the odds on our side. We have the biggest rimu crop we have ever seen on the island developing, all the known females have been assembled to capitalise on the event, we know we can protect the nests, and, thanks to Comalco [which sponsors the kakapo programme] we have the resources to achieve success.” And so 2002 is shaping up to be the year of the kakapo, with Whenua Hou poised to become one boom­ing maternity ward. But whatever the out­come of the season, Jansen, Merton and Elliott are already looking ahead.

“Threatened-species managers here and around the world are getting better at averting extinction and maintaining de­pleted populations,” Merton explained, “but success usually entails expensive, la­bour-intensive, ongoing intervention—and that puts enormous pressure on people and resources. We have to find lasting solu­tions if we are to succeed as conservation­ists. We have to get these animals into situ­ations where they are free-living and self-sustaining.

“Kakapo are a case in point. “A great many people have devoted time, energy and money to saving the kakapo, but if this human prop were to be withdrawn for whatever reason—financial, social or po­litical—then those decades of good work could very quickly be undone and the bird lost.” That is why the three-man kakapo junta is adamant it must find a permanent solution to the kakapo challenge. Says

Elliott: “We are working hard to put our­selves out of work.” Recently, they have come up with a plan as visionary as it is controversial.

Kakapo are beautifully camouflaged amongst native forest vegetation. Searchers have spoken of being unable to see one only a metre away until the bird blinked, for the bird's defence consists in sitting perfectly still. Such a strategy has been o f little use against keen- nosed mammals, which have ushered this bird, like so many others, to the very brink of extinction.
Kakapo are beautifully camouflaged amongst native forest vegetation. Searchers have spoken of being unable to see one only a metre away until the bird blinked, for the bird’s defence consists in sitting perfectly still. Such a strategy has been o f little use against keen- nosed mammals, which have ushered this bird, like so many others, to the very brink of extinction.

In November 2001, Merton flew to Whenua Hou from his Wellington base to prepare for the coming breeding season. I met him in transit, at Invercargill air­port, and he let me in on the lat­est thinking.

“Kakapo are extinct through­out their natural range,” he be­gan, “and there is no way of re­turning them there, at least in the short to me­dium term. If they are to sur­vive in a free-liv­ing state, then it must be outside their former range. But where? It is fair to expect that the number of kakapo will steadily, if slowly, increase,and that the small islands where they are being kept will soon reach their holding capacity. What are we going to do then? There aren’t many options, because kakapo need a lot of space, and a self-sustaining popu­lation of several hundred birds would re­quire many thousands of hectares. They cannot coexist with predatory mammals, so the mainland is out, and they need a dominant masting plant species in order to breed. We’re looking at all the possi­bilities—including the subantarctic.”

His eyes had the gleam of a man who sees a prize which is not yet within his grasp.

“Campbell?” I asked.

“It’s a candidate, and a good one. It is large—over 11,000 ha—and after last year’s rat eradication project it should now be free of all alien mammals. It has a wide variety of plants, including abundant snow tussock, which could provide the necessary high-energy food to enable kakapo to breed. The climate shouldn’t worry them. Kakapo are adapted to cool, damp, subalpine conditions. Their down is particularly dense, and under their skin they have a layer of fat up to 15 mm thick.”

Placing the birds so far outside their former range might seem a form of banish­ment, Merton admitted, but it would also be like putting our feathery treasures on term deposit in a safe offshore bank, where no calamity and no fund-cutting or staff downsizing could affect them.

Although kakapo are unable to fly they have well-developed wings which they use for balance when climbing-an activity at which they excel- and for braking during short downward leaps. Ifthe species’ flight towards oblivion is arrested-as now seems likely-it will be thanks to the herculean effort of a coterie ofconservation workers in gathering and applying knowledge about this most singular o f birds.

Merton reminded me that the Chatham Islands black robin, once the rarest bird in the world, no longer depends on precious conservation dollars for its survival, but thrives in two self-sustaining populations without management. “We absolutely must do the same for kakapo,” he said.

I listened eagerly and soaked up his ra­diant enthusiasm, for it seemed that his lifetime task of seeing the kakapo through its crisis might be nearing completion. Later, I walked with him to the small plane that would whisk this 62-year-old battler, with his shy smile and big backpack, to where he was happiest—among his big green parrots.

As I drove away I thought of Douglas Adams, the literary hitchhiker of the gal­axy, who in 1989 went on a whirlwind tour to see some of the world’s most iconic threatened species. He wrote a book about his experiences, called Last Chance to See, which contains a chapter on kakapo Adams rushed to New Zealand to see the kakapo before it disappeared, but as it has turned out he needn’t have hurried. Here, thanks to Merton, his Wildlife Service and DoC colleagues and an army of volunteers, the rerun of the dodo story looks set to have a happy ending. “If you look [a kakapol in its large, round, greeny-brown face,” Adams wrote, “it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right.” Perhaps now, for the first time ever, we can honestly say it will be.

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