Kākāpō to live on mainland for first time in almost 40 years

6:00 pm on 19 July 2023
Bunker is one of four male kākāpō who will be living on the mainland after being translocated from Whenua Hou to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

Bunker is one of four male kākāpō who will be living on the mainland. Photo: Supplied / Jake Osborne

Ngāi Tahu kākāpō will be living on the mainland for the first time in nearly four decades.

Four male kākāpō are being translocated from Whenua Hou near Rakiura to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari near Cambridge with a celebration to be held on Wednesday.

They will be under the protection of local mana whenua while Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation (DOC) work to preserve and rebuild the population through the Kākāpō Recovery Programme.

The mountain is currently the only mainland location with the potential for establishing a kākāpō population because it is the largest predator-fenced habitat in Aotearoa.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu deputy kaiwhakahaere Matapura Ellison said the translocation was a major milestone for the taonga species.

"First envisioned more than 15 years ago, this move aims to safeguard the future of our vulnerable kākāpō," Ellison said.

The kākāpō population has doubled to reach 252 individuals over the past seven years.

"Unfortunately, kākāpō are incredibly vulnerable to predators such as rats and stoats, and our predator-free offshore breeding islands are almost at capacity.

"We must now send our kākāpō to iwi and hapū partners in the north who have generously offered to protect our taonga through the concept of whāngai, the tikanga of fostering another tamariki."

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu kākāpō recovery group representative Tāne Davis said they have had to tweak their tikanga to keep the taonga alive.

"Although I have felt mamae (hurt) at times, we have had to make the difficult decision to artificially inseminate kākāpō and practice double clutching to separate eggs from their parents, before hatching them using an incubator," Davis said.

"Because the population is still low, we have also used genetic sequencing to trace the whakapapa linkages of our manu to reduce inbreeding and minimise abnormalities which were stopping eggs from hatching."

Te Rūnaka o Awarua representative Gail Thompson said the kākāpō translocation had full support on the rūnanga in Murihiku.

"We are very protective of our taonga and are reluctant to see them leave our rohe (area), but we know this is the right decision.

"As mana whenua, we are committed to making Rakiura (Stewart Island) predator free, so we can establish a strong population of kākāpō closer to home."

Deidre Vercoe manages the Kākāpō Recovery Programme at the Department of Conservation.

Deidre Vercoe manages the Kākāpō Recovery Programme at the Department of Conservation. Photo: Andrew Digby / DOC

DOC kākāpō operations manager Deidre Vercoe said the move marked a new chapter for the critically endangered nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot.

"We've had some pretty scary days. They were almost a lost species, we got down to about 50 birds (in 1995). But for the last few decades, we've been managing them intensively on offshore, predator free islands," Vercoe said.

"To have them now returning to the mainland is a major achievement for all involved."

With a population of more than 250 birds, their island homes were nearing capacity, she said.

"They're unsuspecting trail-blazing males ... these four young males will help us learn about the sanctuary. They'll help us learn if kākāpō can thrive in a fenced sanctuary.

"It's never happened before. We think that they're going to do very well. But it will also help take some pressure off the population on the southern breeding islands."

More kākāpō would be moved in the coming months if this went well, Vercoe said.

Her dream was for kākāpō booming to be heard from the hilltops around the motu.

"We're a long way away from that. But today really marks the change and a step towards that vision."

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