17 Jan 2020

A big 2019 for Kakapo Recovery

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 10:05 am on 17 January 2020

Conservationists hit a series of milestones in 2019 as they boosted the numbers of some of the countries most endangered species. The most significant of which was the Kākāpō - as the population reached its highest point in seven decades.

It was a tremendous achievement for the Kākāpō Recovery Group and represented years of tireless work - but what does that work actually involve at what point do the human stand back, and let the green parrot fend for itself?

DOC Kākāpō Recovery Science Advisor Dr Andrew Digby joined Summer Times to explain more.

When kākāpō chicks reach 150 days old they graduate to being juveniles. They won't be counted as adults until they are four and a half years old.

Kākāpō Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

He says the Kākāpō population reached its low point in the 1990s and had been thought to be potentially extinct in the 1970s.

“We’ve come from a very low point and since the Kākāpō Recovery programme was formed in 1995 there’s been a progression of trying to build those numbers back up. So, we almost lost them and they’re still not out of the woods, but there’s been a pretty good increase from 51 in 1995 to 211 today.”

There were a number of factors that led to the loss of Kākāpō population, including a major loss of habitat and the introduction of exotic mammals, particularly stoats, cats, and dogs.

He says there’s a few aspects to growing the population and he says it starts with a focus on the numbers. 

“You have to make more of that particular species, so initially the programme was focussed on just making more Kākāpō. Then, you get to a certain point where you need to worry about the quality of the Kākāpō and that’s where the genetics comes in.”

He explains they’re not quite at that point of selectively breeding Kākāpō and 211 is a tiny number for the population, in fact it’s one of the most endangered birds on Earth.

In Kākāpō relations, the female chooses the male mate and they can be picky. Dr Digby and his team try to pair birds up and reduce chances of inbreeding, but sometimes they have to resort to artificial insemination.  

The biggest problem the programme faces in having Kākāpō thrive is a lack of space that is predator free.

“We’ve found ourselves in this half nice position of not knowing or not having an obvious answer of where to put Kākāpō next, so that’s what we’re focussing on. That lack of places without cats, without stoats, is a real issue for us.”

Kākāpō are one of the most intensively managed species on the planet and Dr Digby says they don’t have a choice but to do it. They would like to take a step back and let the birds fend for themselves, but it will be a gradual process.

“It’s not the natural state, and we’re not very comfortable with that. We want to do ourselves out of a job, so we step back a little bit more each time and ultimately we want the birds to fend for themselves. We want nature to take its course.”

  • Kākāpō face space limitations as population tops 200
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