One special kiwi chick takes first steps, 500 more to follow

The beginning of a journey for 500 precious kiwi birds has started with one special chick released to mark the start of Save Kiwi Month.

A new approach to kiwi conservation has launched with the release of this one precious young kiwi into a safe haven that is preparing to welcome up to 500 kiwi chicks over the next five years.

The eight-month-old western brown kiwi chick, named Tahi, is the first kiwi released as part of conservation group Kiwis for kiwis' new strategy to accelerate kiwi numbers and turn around the 2% decline. The release took place at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, near Hamilton in the Waikato region, New Zealand's largest predator-proof-fenced sanctuary.

Michelle Impey, executive director of Kiwis for kiwi, said this bird represents a whole new approach to tackling declining kiwi populations.

“We have changed the way we’re doing things in order to make the most of opportunities offered by others," said Ms Impey. 

The process will see chicks from wild-collected eggs incubated in captivity in Operation Nest Egg kiwi hatcheries and released into existing predator free habitats where they can breed in a safe environment. Once those areas near capacity, offspring will be relocated to start new families in other places.

"By increasing the supply chain and getting these kōhanga kiwi sites to capacity more quickly, we can now do in 5 - 10 years what would have taken 50 years or more,” said Ms Impey.

The success of the strategy depends on the collaboration between many groups - Maori iwi / tribes, private land owners, regional councils, Department of Conservation (DOC), hatching facilities and many volunteers.

The initiative was developed in partnership between Kiwis for kiwi and Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. 

Ms Impey said over the past 16 years the Sanctuary had put an enormous amount of work into creating a safe place to enable the reintroduction of endangered species. 

“This has provided a wonderful opportunity to establish a critical kōhanga kiwi site and it made so much sense to work together. We believe the goal of 500 kiwi released to the maunga [mountain] in the next five years is doable,” said Ms Impey.

It has taken a village to get the aptly named Tahi (meaning one or first) to this point with many hands on the cradle along the way.  

When Horowhenua residents, Will and Jan Abel, purchased a block of land 15 minutes out of Raetihi, in the central North Island, for a ‘get away from it all’ holiday cottage, they were surprised and delighted to find the land had kiwi living on it. The couple are avid wetland conservationists but did not know much about kiwi.

“We were asked by a local kiwi practitioner, if we would be interested in getting involved in the national programme to help save kiwi and we were thrilled to be in a position to support the strategy. Before this we’d only ever seen kiwi at the zoo,” said Mr Abel.

After seven years of learning about kiwi conservation and running a trapping programme with neighbours and Horizons Regional Council, Will and Jan said goodbye to the first chick of the Maungatautari kōhanga strategy, which is also the first chick from their land to be part of the national programme.

The egg, produced late last year, was uplifted from Will and Jan’s land and taken to specialised facility Otorohonga Kiwi House for hatching in January this year. Tahi then spent six months at Rotokare Scenic Reserve before being released on 1 October at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari - a safe home behind 47 kilometres of predator fencing.

Kiwis for kiwi aims to release 500 kiwi to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari over the next five years to join the estimated 100 kiwi currently there. The Sanctuary has an estimated carrying capacity of 690 pairs of kiwi and when it reaches half capacity – around 325 pairs – kiwi will be moved off the mountain to begin populations in other predator-controlled areas.

Michelle Impey said that when fully stocked, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is capable of producing hundreds of kiwi per year for release to the wild.

“Alone this initiative can reverse the decline of western brown kiwi and achieve the national goal of 2% growth per year,” said Ms Impey.

The Abels have committed to giving each chick produced on their land that is needed over the next five years to Maungatautari. 

“The birds will flourish in a safe environment, the gene pool will be improved and this is a pragmatic and economically viable approach to putting a dent in the 2% decline of kiwi. There’s nothing about this that doesn’t make sense. While the land belongs to us, the project belongs to the wider team and the birds belong to New Zealand. We look forward to welcoming back Tahi’s offspring in due course,” said Mr Abel.

From a shed in the bush, their land ownership has expanded through buying neighbouring land to ensure the project keeps going.

About Kiwis for kiwi

Kiwis for kiwi, an independent charity, aims to protect kiwi and their natural habitat, ensuring the species flourish for generations to come. It allocates funds to hands-on kiwi projects, raises sponsorship dollars, increases public awareness of the plight of kiwi and works alongside kiwi experts to provide resources, advice and best practice guidance to all those working to save kiwi. In partnership with Department of Conservation, Kiwis for kiwi supports the national Kiwi Recovery Programme and the national goal of growing each species of kiwi by 2% per year. 

About Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari

The Maungatautari restoration project covers 3400 hectares of forested, extinct volcano in the Waikato basin, between Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Putaruru, in the central North Island of New Zealand. The Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust was formed in 2001 to create a pest-free forest, filled to capacity with native birds, insects, reptiles, frogs and other wildlife. The land is owned by Maori, private landowners and the Crown. More than 30 young Maungatautari-bred kiwi have already been exported to other restoration projects.