Recent genetic research on kiwi, of which there are at least five species, and genetically distinct populations within those, has shown that the base of the brown kiwi family tree is firmly rooted in Taranaki. Taranaki can be considered the cradle of brown kiwi evolution.
Nonetheless, what we dub “Taranaki kiwi” is not a distinct species of kiwi, but part of the western race of the North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli). Until recently, this distinct race had seen little effort to help save it. And saving it needs.
Readers will know that some 80-95 per cent of kiwi chicks in the wild fail to reach adulthood, killed by introduced predators such as stoats, ferrets, weasels and feral cats. This high mortality rate 01 young birds is resulting in the kiwi population declining by around 6 per cent each year—or a halving of the population every ten years. Without human help, Taranaki kiwi could become extinct within the lifetimes of our children, even though kiwi are thought to live for 40 or 50 years.
Motivated by the lack of kiwi conservation work in the region, locals formed the Taranaki Kiwi Trust (TKT) in late 2001. DOC had recently decided to use its limited resources to create a kiwi zone in Tongariro National Park, meaning Taranaki would miss out. However, DOC became involved at a critical early stage of the trust’s formation and provided much needed seed funding for the first year of the trust’s existence. It allowed the trust to establish itself, figure out how best to help kiwi in Taranaki, and start doing it. The Taranaki Electricity Trust has supported us financially for three successive years which has also been invaluable.
Unlike most other community conservation groups, the TKT operates at a regional level, with a strong advocacy focus. The trustees realised not only was there a need for something to be done to help specific remnant kiwi populations in Taranaki, but people needed to be told of the plight of Taranaki kiwi, in the hope that they would be moved to help. We have since spoken to over 1,500 local school children about kiwi.
The trust has also helped several groups with information on how to control kiwi predators. We check a database of kiwi records to see what birds have been found in an area in the past. Secondly, a kiwi survey is usually undertaken to get a fix on what the trend is. A field visit to determine sensible trap-line routes on the block is also made. A plan is then put together in conjunction with the people who want to undertake the work. This outlines how to control the targeted pests, the number of traps needed, and where they will be put. Until recently, we couldn’t help much more than that. Local groups then sought support from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), their local community and businesses, or larger regional or national funders such as Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Trust. Two landmark Taranaki kiwi protection projects have been established this way.
The Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust assembled a group of pest control and kiwi experts including people from the TKT, the TRC and DOC. A plan for controlling all pests to low levels within Rotokare Scenic Reserve was put together and initiated in mid-2004. Half a dozen volunteer trappers now check 250-odd stoat traps along 25 km of trap-lines in and round the 230 ha reserve. This isn’t all though. Rodents are receiving attention from 400 rat traps, and possums and cats have also been dealt to with targeted poisoning operations by the TRC and extra trapping, respectively. A real surprise has been the hundreds of hedgehogs caught, especially on the reserve’s boundary trap-line. These prickly predators are an underestimated en‑emy of native ground nesting birds, large invertebrates and lizards. The efforts of this group has seen the tide of pests turned, and a resurgence of tui, native pigeon and many of the smaller native passerines. Kiwi will also benefit—there are several adult kiwi resident in this reserve and in a large neighbouring block of scrub, where the local branch of Forest and Bird is also waging a war on introduced pests.
A second group has formed in eastern Taranaki in the Purangi-Matau area, 30 km east of Inglewood. Survey work over two of the properties initially revealed a minimum of 15 adult kiwi in 200 ha of rimu-tawa forest remnants, manuka-tree fern scrubland, young pine plantations and farmland. This location has become an area for egg recovery for our Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Trust-funded Operation Nest Egg programme (ONE), now in its second year.
A tip-off from local landowners that kiwi were present in relatively easy terrain lured the joint TKT and DOC ONE programme off Mt Taranaki, whose high-altitude remnant kiwi habitat was proving too challenging to effectively monitor for eggs. Last season we radio tagged three male kiwi at Purangi-Matau on private land, and collected three eggs from two of the birds. Two chicks resulted, later christened “Tara” and “Naki” by school children. These were released as young birds into the middle of a large predator-trapped area on the north-western slopes of Mt Taranaki in April this year. The ONE effort has been bolstered by a second egg collection site near Aotuhia, where another 6 males are under “egg surveillance” by expert kiwi hunter Sid Marsh. This year we’re hoping to successfully rear 10 kiwi chicks to their 1.2 kg release weight and liberate them on Mt Taranaki to bolster the small remnant kiwi population there. We think there may be as few as 60-80 adult birds there.
After the first ONE season, the Purangi-Matau locals raised their sights and cast their pest control net over 2,000 ha with assistance from the TRC, who undertook an aerial 1080 poison drop. Such operations not only effectively control possums, but have the added bonus of also reducing rats and mustelids. Locals in the area have formed the Eastern Taranaki Environment Trust (ETET) and plan to follow up the poisoning with predator trapping. Over one hundred adult kiwi and, importantly, their future off-spring, stand to benefit from this ambitious work.
In another predator control project, the TKT and DOC have set 860 trap-boxes targeting stoats every 100 m along 86 km of trap-lines covering 6,000 ha on the north-western slopes on Mt Taranaki. A helicopter helped by dropping loads of 10 traps every kilometre along the mountainside, but deploying them took a dozen volunteers another week of hard work.
Next year, thanks to support from the TSB Community Trust, the TKT’s Community Kiwi Programme will provide 1,250 stoat and cat traps to private landowners who have kiwi on their land. We hope to seed new projects similar to Rotokare and ETET with enough traps to effectively control predators over a minimum of 250 ha. The long-term vision is to help and inspire many similar initiatives over kiwi habitat in back-country Taranaki, so that they will eventually link up to become one giant kiwi predator control block, ensuring that our ancient Taranaki kiwi flourish for a long time yet.