Back from the Brink
By Linda E. Platts
New Zealand's endangered kakapos were fabulously fertile this year, earning them a flurry of media coverage. This huge, flightless parrot with soft whiskers and peculiar habits has gone from teetering on the edge of extinction to planting one large, clawed foot on the road to recovery. With a bumper crop of chicks, the world's population of kakapos has skyrocketed from 62 to 86.
The story of the kakapo is almost as odd as the bird itself, which has been likened to a Persian cat with feathers. Scientists theorize that it originally flew to New Zealand, where it thrived in the absence of predatory land mammals. Over time, it lost its ability to fly and became an excellent climber with large, powerful claws and sturdy thighs. The largest kakapos tip the scales at close to nine pounds, making it the world's largest parrot.
The arrival of the Polynesians followed by the Europeans brought an end to the kakapo's halcyon days in New Zealand. Nineteenth-century explorer Charles Douglas noted that he could shake a tree and kakapos would fall like ripe apples. Their succulent white meat made a delicious meal, and their beautiful feathers were woven into warm cloaks.
More devastating than the human settlers were the dogs, cats, rats, and weasel-like stoats that came with them. The slow waddling kakapos had counted eagles as their main enemy, but over time had developed a defense system. Kakapos can freeze absolutely motionless, blending perfectly with the vegetation when an eagle is overhead. This same technique was not nearly so effective with quick, agile land animals. Making matters worse, the kakapo has a strong musky odor often described as a mixture of honey and flowers. Together, these two characteristics spelled disaster. The kakapo might as well have been waving a giant flag and shouting "I'm waiting for you over here!"
By the late 1800s, kakapos were in serious trouble. The government launched its first rescue effort in 1894, capturing several hundred kakapos and releasing them on one of the islands still free of predators. Within a few years, stoats invaded the island by swimming across narrow passages and destroyed the parrots.
Many people believed the kakapo was extinct by the middle of the twentieth century, yet in a last-ditch effort the Wildlife Service sponsored more than 60 expeditions into remote country in search of remnant populations. To great surprise, a few groups of the parrots were eventually found and evacuated to offshore islands. Still, they did not thrive. Breeding was rare, eggs were frequently infertile, and the survival rate of the young was low.
In the early 1990s, the Kakapo Recovery Programme was established as a partnership between the Department of Conservation, Comalco New Zealand, and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. This triumvirate of government agency, private industry, and environmental organization is responsible for funding and administering New Zealand's effort to save the kakapo.
The hands-on work falls to the National Kakapo Team, which includes a staff of 10 professionals and support personnel, aided by hundreds of volunteers who come from around the world. In 1995, with a population of just 51 kakapos and little time left for experimentation, the team attacked the problem on all fronts, from breeding frequency and nutrition to nest productivity and safety.
The entire island of Whenua Hou was cleared of rats to make a long-term home for the kakapo. A supplemental feeding program was established to promote robust health that might encourage breeding among the reluctant females. Typically, the males were eager to do their part. The team discovered well-worn trails that led to areas where the earth was scooped out to make shallow bowls. At night, the males gathered here to prance and strut their stuff. After the show, they settled into their bowls, puffed up into giant balls of feathers, and boomed out fog-horn-like sounds. Needless to say, this was all done to impress the ladies. And apparently some females did find it irresistible because when the night was over, the male kakapos went home alone, while the females looked for places to nest.
Kakapos are hard-working single mothers, often losing a third of their body weight while raising their young. Without a mate to help out around the nest, they must leave their eggs and chicks untended while they look for food. Nocturnal by nature, the mothers are away from the nest when temperatures are coldest and predators most active.
This potentially dangerous situation has been remedied by nest minders. Hundreds of volunteers have come to this remote island for two-week stints to assist the recovery team. Every volunteer is assigned a nest with a sleeping tent nearby loaded with equipment. The nests are wired with tiny infrared video cameras and alarm systems. When the mother leaves the nest at night, an alarm wakes the volunteer who monitors the nest in her absence. If the mother stays away more than 30 minutes, the volunteer places a warming device in the nest. Every kakapo mom wears a miniature backpack fitted with a radio transmitter that signals her location. As she makes her way back to the nest, the volunteer removes the warmer and retreats out of sight.
The team's efforts combined with an unusually large crop of rimu fruit, the kakapo's favorite food, resulted in this year's population explosion. Don Merton, one of the team leaders, is cautiously optimistic. If the chicks keep coming, they will need a larger island and preferably a remote one.
This back-from-the-brink success story is one of the most intensive efforts to save a species in New Zealand's history. It has required the combined and sustained efforts of government, business, and volunteers. And it just might work.