12 Jun 2019

Behind-the-scenes of the kākāpō health crisis

From Kākāpō Files, 5:00 pm on 12 June 2019

The death toll from the aspergillosis health crisis in the kākāpō population has risen to seven, but nine birds suspected of having the fungal disease have been given the all-clear.

Deidre Vercoe, manager of the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery team, says she is delighted with the good news that the nine birds are healthy and will shortly be returned to the wild.

The most recent kākāpō death happened yesterday during a medical procedure at Auckland Zoo as part of chick Nora-1-A’s treatment for a severe case of aspergillosis.

In response to the health crisis, kākāpō fans around the world have responded by donating more than NZ$100,000 to an ‘aspergillosis fund”.

Adult female kākāpō Ihi receiving medical treatment at Auckland Zoo.

Adult female kākāpō Ihi receiving medical treatment at Auckland Zoo. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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Auckland Zoo vet nurse Breeze Buchanan holding Weheruatang o te Pō, an adult female kākāpō.

Auckland Zoo vet nurse Breeze Buchanan holding Weheruatang o te Pō, an adult female kākāpō. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The first case of aspergillosis in the kākāpō population was detected in late April, and since then 36 birds have been sent to veterinary hospitals around the country for diagnosis and treatment.

James Chatterton, veterinary manager at the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine at Auckland Zoo, say the situation is still “ very dynamic,” and while many birds appear to have respiratory lesions in their lungs it is still not clear whether all of them have aspergillosis or whether other infections might be involved.

The seven deaths from the disease so far include two adult females, Hoki and Huhana, along with five chicks.

Seventeen kākāpō are currently being treated for aspergillosis, while a further two chicks are waiting for a diagnosis. This includes two adult females, Margaret-Maree and Cyndy, that have been diagnosed with severe aspergillosis, while adult females  Ihi and Weheruatanga-o-te-Po have a borderline diagnosis

The healthy birds that have been given a clean bill of health are the adult female Pounamu, four chicks from Anchor Island and a further four from Whenua Hou, including Roha-3-A who was sent to Massey University’s Wildbase Hospital for testing just last week.

Deidre says she hopes this means they are seeing the limits of the infection amongst birds, “which would be encouraging.”

The total population of kākāpō is currently 142 adults and 72 living chicks.

Kākāpō chick Alice-2-A walks slowly away after being fed at Auckland Zoo.

Kākāpō chick Alice-2-A walks slowly away after being fed at Auckland Zoo. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Donations pouring in

Deidre says she is overwhelmed that kākāpō fans from around the world have responded to the current health crisis by donating more than NZ$100,000 to an ‘aspergillosis fund.’

“It’s a pretty fantastic response.”

“Sixty or seventy percent of the donations came from overseas so it’s got some global attention, what’s happening here.”

She says the donations will be used for research to better understand the disease.

Kākāpō chick Esperance-2-B waits to be fed in her pen at Auckland Zoo.

Kākāpō chick Esperance-2-B waits to be fed in her pen at Auckland Zoo. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Kākāpō surgery

RNZ reported today on surgery at Auckland Zoo on chick Nora-1-A.

Find out more

If you would like to know more about kākāpō you can follow the Kākāpō Recovery Programme on Facebook and Instagram. Kākāpō scientist Andrew Digby and Kākāpō Files producer Alison Ballance are on Twitter.

Find the full kākāpō story in the book Kākāpō – rescued from the brink of extinction by Alison Ballance (2018).

Adult female kākāpō Weheruatanga- o te pō in a nebuliser at Auckland Zoo receiving anti fungal treatment for an aspergillosis infection.

Adult female kākāpō Weheruatanga- o te pō in a nebuliser at Auckland Zoo receiving anti fungal treatment for an aspergillosis infection. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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