Saving the Kiwi

You’d never guess when arriving at New Zealand’s Auckland International Airport that the country is in a state of ecological war.

The exhaustive questionnaire you are required to fill in before touchdown, the cute but ironically non-endemic Beagle that sniffs your luggage after your arrival and the steely-eyed scrutiny by customs officials if they find foreign food, plants, seeds or wood among your possessions may give you an inkling of the seriousness with which New Zealand approaches the threats posed by incoming banned materials.

As one of four island nations internationally whose natural fauna and flora has been severely pummeled and in some instances decimated to the point of extinction by both introduced invaders and by man, New Zealand has taken up the cudgels, in a manner of speaking, to not only halt the devastation but to restore the ecological glories of its pristine past.

Just how the country is handling this monumental if not daunting challenge exercised my mind as I headed away from the airport into the land of the kiwis.

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The entrance to the Rainbow Springs facility in Rotorua, New Zealand’s most successful kiwi egg hatching center.

And that’s when I had a “golden” thought: If New Zealand’s biodiversity is under threat, then surely the way in which the survival of the iconic kiwi is being tackled will give me, as a eco-tourist of relatively serious demeanor, a rare insight into the success or otherwise of a critically important component of the overall strategy.

I’d spent a fair bit of time undertaking desk research into the state of New Zealand’s fauna and flora before I set off for the airport.

I knew that most of the endemic bird species as well as other fauna on both North and South Island have been decimated by introduced predators and pests such as stoats, ferrets, possums, rats, rabbits, goats and domestic dogs and cats. Many of the invaders are also destroying vast swathes of natural flora, amongst which is food on which endemic creatures exist.

Enigmatic Mother Nature tabled a royal flush 80 million years ago when the hulking continent of Gondwana split up, in some unfathomable fashion ensuring that the islands of what is today New Zealand were populated by a wonderland of birdlife and three species of bats. Predators were left behind on what is now the island of Australia. Try and figure that one out because scientists are still scratching their heads.

The result was the development of unique species of birds found nowhere else in the world. Many lost the ability to fly because the food they required was on the ground, where no threat existed. The arrival of man, the first wave parting the virgin sands of New Zealand 900 years ago, followed hundreds of years later by Europeans settlers, heralded the start of an attack on endemic species.

The attack has grown in intensity over the 750 years to the point that since human settlement the number of species that have become extinct could include one bat, at least 40 birds, three frogs, three lizards, a freshwater fish, four plant species, and a number of invertebrates. Several species have been pulled back from the brink of extinction in recent years, including the Chatham Island black robin and the heavyweight, flightless kakapo parrot.

So I was aware that there are few other places on the planet where the eco-tourist can expose him or herself to elements of an ecological battlefield as expansive as those in New Zealand.

My need to focus on actions being undertaken to ensure the survival of the kiwi led me to the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Encounter facility in Rotorua, a tourist town renowned as a centre of Maori culture and heritage. Here, I hoped to see at first hand what is being done to not only stave off oblivion for the kiwi, that numbered millions in its heyday but has been currently reduced to a population of about 70 000 birds comprising five species (great spotted, okarito brown (Rowi), tokoeka, little spotted and North Island brown) and a sub species of the tokoeka, the Haast southern brown.

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Chicks are fed ox heart by hand in order to get them to increase their birth weight to about 1kg. Emma Bean, assistant kiwi husbandry manager at the Rainbow Springs facility in Rotorua, hand feeds each chick twice a day.

Rainbow Springs (“Where Kiwis Play”) offers tourists an opportunity to ‘meet New Zealand’s unique wildlife up close and personal’. My objective was to do just that with the kiwi in the knowledge that Rainbow Springs is the country’s most successful kiwi egg hatching centre, having raised over 1 400 chicks to date. Animal husbandry specialists at the facility also assist with protocols for the Department of Conservation (DOC) and other institutions and are considered national leader in scientific data collation of the brown kiwi.

Ngai Tahu Tourism’s Shelley Burnett set up a visit and an interview with Emma Bean, Assistant Kiwi Husbandry Manager, who has worked at Kiwi Encounter since June 2007. Emma, who has a BSc (Hons) in Biological Sciences from Birmingham University in Britain, swopped working with elephants in Chang Mai, gibbons in Phuket and reptiles in the United Kingdom to focus in the main on embryological aspects of the kiwi.

Emma worked as a volunteer at a kiwi ‘creche’ on North Island’s west coast before moving across to Rainbow Springs where she was taken on initially as a volunteer before securing a permanent post at Kiwi Encounter with the National Kiwi Trust. The trust was established in 2006 as a vehicle to raise funds for the national Save the Kiwi Program.

“I have to say, nothing beats working with kiwi,” Emma remarked when I met her ahead of her demonstrating to me how a recently hatched Kiwi chick is trained to adapt its feeding habits to accept mushed ox heart.

The egg incubating and newly hatched chick stabilising area is run on scientific lines with strict hygienic protocols in place. Members of the public can observe through hermetically sealed viewing glass panels staff candling eggs using specially developed torches. Candling takes place every few days to monitor the development of an egg. This allows conservation staff to age an egg within 1–2 days of its actual developmental stage. Observers can also watch chicks being fed by hand.

Emma collected a chick called Maunga (Maori for mountain) from its temperature-controlled enclosure, weighed the bird (272g) and sat down on a chair to begin the laborious feed training process. Maunga is an historic chick in that it was the 1 400th chick hatched at Kiwi Encounter. The chick, whose gender will not be identified for a few weeks, emerged from the incubated egg on 4 January this year and weighed 272g before Emma patiently coached it to eat 14g of ox heart over a 10-minute period.

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Newly hatched kiwi chicks are encouraged to use the nostrils at the end of their beaks to smell the food they are being given.

“Without pest control, kiwi chicks have only a 5% survival rate up to six months of age. For the kiwi population to increase, we need a 20% survival,” Emma said. “Without any intervention they would disappear in our lifetime. There are only 25 000 brown kiwi at present and the population size is holding.

“Rowi, the rarest and smallest of the five kiwi species, are on the ‘nationally critical’ list. The population of little spotted kiwi went through a bottleneck some years ago when only four individuals were left in the genetic pool, which is a threat to genetic diversity.”

Emma is remarkably pragmatic about the plight of the kiwi but exudes a measure of confidence that the national strategy to save and grow the kiwi population will meet with success.

“There are only two ways to look at it: all predators have to be cleared out but at present that means predator-clear offshore islands (the best known of which is Kapiti), or alternatively an entire area has to be cordoned off with a pest-proof fence and a haven created for endemic species (captive management of kiwi). ”

I established after our interview that Sanctuary Mountain — the largest pest-proof fenced project in the world – had been set up in a forested area near Hamilton about 95 minutes drive from Rotorua. The ecological restoration project boasts thriving populations of a host of native species of flora and fauna, including the kiwi and tuatara, the only surviving descendent of the dinosaur. Tautara are also bred at Rainbow Springs. Eco tourists can visit many of the 86 sanctuaries, some of which are islands some distance from the mainland, to learn about how they are contributing to the country’s biodiversity restoration.

“The other option is Operation Nest Egg, which is basically a kiwi egg recovery program,” says Emma.

Teams of volunteers from communities across New Zealand are working with DOC on BNZ Operation Nest Egg.

“Male kiwi in the wild are fitted with monitors. Since the male is responsible for sitting on an egg, once the male stops moving around it can be presumed that he is sitting on the nest. The field workers collect the egg or eggs (up to two per clutch) after 60 days of natural incubation.”

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Specially developed torches are used on the kiwi eggs every few days to monitor the development of an egg. The process is called candling.

She says that “kiwis are hatched with everything in place, they are miniature adults and therefore need very little parental care. The chick has a yolk in its tummy so is able to feed off that for about a week. Evolutionary-wise this was good in the old days but a recently born chick at 350g is just not big enough to battle a stoat. It takes us about two to two and a half months to get a chick’s weight up to around a kilogram but in the wild this weight gain takes up to six months. That’s far to long to avoid being attacked by a stoat and hence the high attrition rate in the wild.

“Chicks lose weight for the first week or so of life as the utilize their yolk, but they then start gaining weight as they are established onto solid food. Once they have regained their natural weight, they are transferred to outdoor enclosures where they are weighed weekly. The outdoor run mimics conditions in the wild but the chicks are also provided with supplementary food.

“After about two or 2.5 months the chicks are returned to the areas from which the eggs were taken. This practice means that the kiwi population in each area will continue to grow,” says Emma, adding that Kiwi Encounter has “a 95 percent success rate in hatching chicks that make it through to our incubation room.”

She views the kiwi as a ‘flagship’ species that are not necessarily any more vunerable to predators than other bird species.

So where to from here for the kiwi?

The success of the kiwi recovery plan is dependent on private funding but as the authors of the plan point out, “for protection of kiwi to be truly sustainable, it needs to take the health of the ecosystem into account rather than simply focusing on the species in isolation. In this way, kiwi will function as umbrella and indicator species, with their management benefiting many other species, and successes reflecting the increasing health of the entire ecosystem.”

As I drove away from Rainbow Springs, New Zealand one dollar coins imprinted with the kiwi tinkling in my pocket, I reflected that the toughness and endurance of the New Zealand people – affectionately known internationally as kiwis – is being transferred in no small measure onto the extensive ‘Save the Kiwi’ program.

The war is still a long way from being won. But invaders beware. The kiwis are coming.