22 Aug 2023

Department of Conservation bears brunt of probe into alleged kiwi mishandling

1:17 pm on 22 August 2023
The North Island brown kiwi, Apteryx mantelli.

North Island brown kiwi. Photo: 123rf

An investigation into a Hawke's Bay sanctuary accused of putting private tours above kiwi health has instead come down hard on the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Between 2016 and 2018, DOC received several complaints about kiwi handling practices and the deaths of 25 kiwi - 18 brown kiwi chicks and seven little spotted kiwi - at Cape Sanctuary.

It has been the subject of multiple reports over the past five years, some carried out by DOC and some external, with complaints focusing on the kiwi tours - complainants alleging they were being overhandled for profit.

Now, an independent review by David Shanks, commissioned by DOC director-general Penny Nelson, has found excessive handling, while "unlawful and unnecessary", did not contribute to their deaths.

However, it did find DOC's systems were inadequate, and recommended significant improvements to the issuing, documentation, monitoring, and reporting of permissions under the Wildlife Act, as well as improving its complaints processes.

"DOC didn't respond in the way I would expect myself, so I asked for this review to identify what improvements are still needed," Nelson said.

"DOC should have done better, and we accept all the review's recommendations. It's our responsibility to protect kiwi and we need to do everything we can to help them thrive."

She said DOC was already reviewing existing wildlife authorities to make sure the right checks and balances are in place.

"We are also replacing our permissions database, improving training for DOC staff in monitoring roles, and strengthening our compliance approach. Some of the recommendations have already been implemented, while others will take more time."

She said because of funding and resources available, it would be rolled out over the next two years.

Kiwi tours

The sanctuary gave visitors at the luxury accommodation on site the opportunity to accompany staff on health checks and pet the kiwi - known as kiwi tours.

Complaints were made to DOC that this was putting tourism over profit, and was leading to the death of a high number of kiwi.

The report found while the excessive handling caused by these tours "gives rise to legitimate concerns", it could not be concluded that it directly contributed to the kiwis' deaths.

Instead, they were likely caused by a combination of a dry season and a loss of experienced staff from the sanctuary, which in turn led to a period of inadequate monitoring and pest control measures during an already difficult time.

For about five years, the sanctuary was also operating without the proper licence - known as an "authority" - to handle North Island brown kiwi, as its 2006 licence expired in July 2011.

It did, however, hold current permits for handling little spotted kiwi. A new one for North Island brown kiwi was issued for 2018.

The report blamed a breakdown in communication between DOC and the sanctuary for this, with nobody noticing the licence had expired. It recommended DOC rework its systems for issuing and monitoring these permissions.

The former head of DOC's relationship with the sanctuary's founder

The report also delves into the suggestion from "several interviewees" that DOC's former director-general (D-G) was friends with the sanctuary's founder, which led to special treatment.

It concludes: "On the information provided by both the founder and the D-G, it is reasonable to characterise their relationship as a significant or important one for both of them, but it cannot be said that they were close friends."

But it also details occasions on which the D-G attended sanctuary tours, a barbecue, and accepted an invitation for him and his wife to accompany the founder to a concert at the Mission Estate in 2017.

Brown kiwi (Apteryx australis), young in a box.

A young brown kiwi. Photo: AFP / Stephan Bonneau / Biosphoto

"The D-G further confirmed that the founder would contact the D-G from time to time to discuss various issues arising in relation to the sanctuary. The D-G recalled that this occurred approximately two or three times a year, although in some years there was no contact."

The department's media statements

The report found the department had issued media statements which contained statements which were not true.

A media statement issued on 3 October 2018 in response to media reporting about deaths of kiwi at the sanctuary said: "Various aspects of this media statement are of concern in light of the findings of this review. For example, in the statement DOC asserted that it 'was confident that kiwi handling practices at the sanctuary are of a very high standard'.

"At this time DOC had not substantively investigated the various disclosures and concerns raised in relation to this, and had not yet started its site visits to the sanctuary."

The review found multiple breakdowns in communication between the local office and DOC's head office regarding the sanctuary, leading to confusion and delays in dealing with their permissions.

Advice to the minister

The report found DOC's guidance to the minister of conservation was at times inaccurate and potentially misleading.

In one case, the department "did not provide appropriate support to the minister to assist her in accurately responding to a complainant who communicated concerns around kiwi deaths and handling to her".

The advice contained a number of errors and significantly understated the actual numbers of kiwi chicks that had died, with this error being carried through into the minister's response.

The report acknowledged this would have been "highly frustrating for the individual concerned, who had been trying for several months to get a substantive response".

What needs to change?

The report has made a number of recommendations for DOC, including:

  • prioritising the replacement of its permissions database (ie. the one which managed who can keep and handle native species)
  • undertaking a risk-based review of existing authorities (permissions) and authority holders
  • a new complaints system
  • review and update both the brown and little spotted kiwi authorities currently held by the sanctuary.

What's already being done?

Nelson said some of the changes were underway or had already been made, and more would be implemented over the next two years.

"DOC has to be match fit for the important job it does, so my focus has been on strong leadership, a clear strategy, sharper operating structures, greater fiscal discipline and an unrelenting focus on conservation.

"Our programme of work will include reviewing existing wildlife authorities to make sure the right checks and balances are in place. We are also replacing our permissions database, improving training for DOC staff in monitoring roles, and strengthening our compliance approach."

A separate 2021 report showed the survival rate of kiwi at the sanctuary was 81.25 percent, and Nelson said the survival rate at the sanctuary was higher than 80 percent, compared to 5 percent in the wild; and there were now 100 breeding kiwi pairs and 300 creched chicks at Cape Sanctuary.

In 2020, the sanctuary expanded its tour offerings to include night tours, which involved taking guests on a site tour at night with the goal of spotting a wild kiwi.

The report said: "The establishment of effective reporting protocols and regular engagement meetings with DOC staff also means that DOC is now much better informed than it was in 2016/17."

Forest & Bird, which had raised concerns in 2018, questioned why it had taken five years for DOC to act.

"New Zealanders put their trust in DOC to look after precious species like kiwi," Chief executive Nicola Toki said. "It's disappointing that it's taken five years and a change in leadership at DOC to get to this point."

She said Forest & Bird continued to have reservations about the recommendations.

"We feel that the issues surrounding the 2019 variation [the refreshed version of the permit] were not fully and properly evaluated."

The sanctuary was not available for comment.

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