Hope for endangered kākāpō as population reaches record 213 in New Zealand

A breeding boom for a rare New Zealand parrot has scientists celebrating an important conservation milestone.

A breeding boom for a rare bird has scientists celebrating an important conservation milestone with the announcement that the population of endangered kākāpō – New Zealand’s curious flightless, nocturnal parrot – has risen to 213 birds. 

And while the number is still small, it’s a 70-year record for the critically endangered kākāpō population, a good news story that was welcomed as New Zealand celebrated the 50th anniversary of Conservation Week, a national event promoting volunteer conservation opportunities. 

Once found in abundant numbers throughout New Zealand, this plump parrot with an owl-like face, whose name combines two Māori words kākā (parrot) and pō (night), is something of an icon in New Zealand’s conservation story. Considered a taonga [treasure], the species has come dangerously close to extinction because their flightless, foraging lifestyle makes them easy prey for introduced predators such as stoats and rats. 

The new record was achieved as the youngest chick of the bumper 2018/19 breeding season, named Stella-3-B-2019, turned 150 days old – the age at which all chicks are deemed to be ‘juvenile’ and officially added to the adult population.

DOC Kākāpō Recovery Science Advisor Dr Andrew Digby says this is an important milestone in the long journey towards kākāpō recovery.

“There are probably more kākāpō alive today than at any time in the last 70 years. Decades of work from many people has gone into achieving this,” Digby said.

The 2018/19 breeding season was the biggest ever on record after a mast year in the native forests led to unprecedented amounts of rimu fruit which is necessary for kākāpō to successfully breed and hatch chicks on the main breeding islands.

A record 71 chicks survived from hatching through to juvenile age – far surpassing the previous record of 32.

A team of around 100 scientists, Department of Conservation employees and volunteers has worked tirelessly to achieve this record. Most of the work takes place on remote island sanctuaries and includes ingenious methods like the ‘sperm-copter’ drone that whizzes sperm from male to female and smart technology such as smart eggs, artificial insemination, transmitters and data loggers. 

The breeding season has not been without challenges however, particularly after a wave of aspergillosis – a fungal infection that can be deadly to birds – swept through the population. But thanks to swift action by a dedicated team from DOC, Auckland and Wellington Zoos, and the wildlife hospitals in Palmerston North and Dunedin, most of the 21 birds affected have so far survived. However, a recent death highlights that the disease remains an ongoing threat. 

DOC kākāpō operations manager Deidre Vercoe says the new population milestone is a wonderful reward for everyone involved in this taonga species’ recovery.

“A huge amount of effort from many people around both New Zealand and the world has gone into achieving this remarkable result,” she said. 

Vercoe said the team included international artificial insemination experts, veterinarians and wildlife carers around the country who supported through incubation, hand rearing and the aspergillosis crisis, and hundreds of volunteers who helped to keep both rangers and birds fed on the islands during breeding season.

“The fact that the milestone happened to fall in the middle of Conservation Week gives us another reason to celebrate.”

The next challenge will be looking for new homes for the growing kākāpō population to expand into, she said.

“The kākāpō population has grown 70% in the last five years and we’re starting to reach carrying capacity on the two main breeding islands: Anchor and Whenua Hou. We need to find new suitable habitats for the growing population, which is a great problem to have.”

International visitors arriving in New Zealand are contributing directly to kākāpō conservation work via the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) collected on arrival. Funding of NZ$1.5 million has been set aside for extending predator-free safe havens to spread the population.

Locals and visitors also have the opportunity to adopt a kākāpō through the Conservation Department. Prospective kākāpō parents can apply at Adopt a Kākāpō.

The ultimate goal for the conservationists is to one day be in a position to return kākāpō to their wahi kainga or natural outdoor home.

Where to spot kākāpō

There aren’t many opportunities to spot kākāpō. Most of the remaining birds live on Whenua Hou / Codfish Island, with some living on Anchor Island and Little Barrier Island. Access to these remote islands is strictly restricted. 

However, Sirocco kākāpō - New Zealand's official 'Spokesbird' who became a world famous ambassador for the species after appearing with Steven Fry on the BBC’s 'Last Chance to See'  - makes a visit every few years to one of the bird sanctuaries on the mainland where it is possible for the public to meet him. Sirocco is a special case because he's not interested in mating and due to a difficult 'chick'hood has grown up to better identify with humans than his own species. Follow Sirocco on Twitter @Spokesbird