Kākāpō: Bird on the brink
In a land renowned for its unusual birds, the kākāpō—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.
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.”
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 Ironman-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 kākāpō—flightless, nocturnal, solitary, and hopelessly adorable.
The kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō, 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 Rakiura/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 kākāpō.
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 kākāpō would fall down like apples. Hawkes Bay farmer and 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 kākāpō’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. Kākāpō have become so precious that their caretakers leave nothing to chance.
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 kākāpō’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 kākāpō 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 3D shapes out of Magic Eye pictures.
Chris Hughes, who worked as a kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō’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.”
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 kākāpō, 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 kākāpō, 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 kākāpō, 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 kākāpō is one of deja vu, almost right up to its mournful finale. We might well now be saying “dead as a kākāpō” 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 ageing, 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 kākāpō, our flagship species and number one conservation priority, what hope is there for all the other, less glamorous critters?”
The decline of the kākāpō is textbook stuff. Māori 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 kākāpō had become extremely rare in the South Island as well.
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” takahē, and it soon became apparent they could be the final bastion of the kākāpō 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 kākāpō discovered. By then it had been established that the birds favoured so-called kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō.
It took another two weeks to trap the bird, which was named Jonathan Livingston Kākāpō. 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 kākāpō’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 Māori lore which told of a whawharua—a hollow where each tribe of kākāpō gathered to perform unusual nightly rituals—began making more sense. Could these elaborate constructions have something to do with breeding?
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 kākāpō 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-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 kākāpō gardens fell silent.
All was not lost, however, for in a miraculous reprise the kākāpō would get a second chance. While the Fiordland booming was fading, a 200-strong population of kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō conservationist Richard Henry.
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 kākāpō continued, it began turning up not only live birds but, more and more frequently, their half-eaten carcasses.
Feral cats had developed a taste for kākāpō, and within five years these bushwise and feisty predators halved the remaining kākāpō 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 kākāpō were caught and transferred to safe island sanctuaries: Whenua Hou, Te Hoiere/Maud Island and Hauturu/Little Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf . The kākāpō’s wild days were over. From now on, constant inter-island transfers and airlifts out of trouble would become the norm in kākāpō 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 Whenua Hou. We each carried a plastic cat box housing a kākāpō. 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-hectare Whenua Hou Nature Reserve was being purged of any remaining vermin. Back in the mid-1980s, possums had been eradicated from Whenua Hou, 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 “kākāpōrium”—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. Hoki was the star of several media appearances in the early 1990s when, rescued as a starving chick from Whenua Hou, she became the first ever kākāpō 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.
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. Kākāpō flap their wings only to get more climbing momentum 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō workers have discovered, creating safe havens and putting all the adult birds together does not necessarily add up to the production of more kākāpō.
Kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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.
One of the few people to have seen a male kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō followed Morris around, dancing again and again, but instantly losing interest in him every time he stepped outside the display area.
Finding out just what triggers the lekking—and the breeding—has been one of the cruxes of kākāpō 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/Little Barrier Island. 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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.
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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō, 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 kākāpō on a fast track to recovery—well, fast in kākāpō terms.
In the avian world, where life is but a short sprint, kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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, kākāpō bred successfully on Te Hoiere/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 kākāpō is an adaptable creature. Maud Island is the 309-hectare 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 kākāpō nested.
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 kākāpō. “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 3am—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.
Under this intensive management regime 12 juveniles were raised in three seasons, bringing the population to 62 birds. Then things went quiet on the kākāpō 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 kākāpō radar which individually logs every bird that passes within a 10-metre 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 kākāpō can reach its favourite morsels is also an electronic weighing station.
Not that all the kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō to decide to breed again.
In January 2001, the word from Whenua Hou 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 kākāpō programme] we have the resources to achieve success.” And so 2002 is shaping up to be the year of the kākāpō, 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.”
Kākāpō are a case in point. “A great many people have devoted time, energy and money to saving the kākāpō, 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 kākāpō junta is adamant it must find a permanent solution to the kākāpō 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.
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.
“Kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 kākāpō 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 hectares—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 kākāpō to breed. The climate shouldn’t worry them. Kākāpō 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 millimetres 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.
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 kākāpō,” he said.
I listened eagerly and soaked up his radiant enthusiasm, for it seemed that his lifetime task of seeing the kākāpō 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 kākāpō. Adams rushed to New Zealand to see the kākāpō 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 kākāpō] 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.