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Kakapo population breaks 100

11 March 2009

The long running campaign to save the kakapo has reached a new milestone with confirmation that the population of critically endangered birds has cracked through the 100 mark.

The Department of Conservation's Kakapo Recovery Team have been closely watching a handful of chicks born in the past few days on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island - the kakapo sanctuary off Stewart Island.

All the new chicks have survived their first few critical days, meaning the world's kakapo headcount is now officially 103 birds - more than double the total number of kakapo alive a little over a decade ago.

"This is great news - we've still got a long, long road ahead before the kakapo's future is secure but it's a huge milestone for one of the country's favourite birds," said the Minister of Conservation Tim Groser.

The recovery team are expecting a bumper breeding season this year with hopes of more than 30 chicks hatching over the coming weeks.

Kakapo Strigops habroptilus named Suzanne and her foster brood, "W1" 45 days old weighing 1770 grammes, and "W2" 52 days old and 1620g, Codfish Island, 2002
Photo: Don Merton, Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation

View 8 larger images

"Hopefully we'll be able to keep the population over the 100 mark and that is a fantastic reward for all the Department of Conservation (DoC) staff and many volunteers who have worked so hard to build up kakapo numbers over the years."

DoC staff and volunteers work 24 hours a day to look after the new arrivals on Codfish Island, a predator-free sanctuary 3km off the coast of Stewart Island.

An all-night vigil is kept, camping close to the nests to make sure females incubate correctly, sometimes covering eggs with heat pads when the nest is left to ensure they do not get cold.

Nests are monitored with cameras, and the first sign of a stoat immediately sends the rescue party.

Above left: Kakapo Strigops habroptilus named Alice feeding her 12-day old chick Manu in their nest captivity, Codfish Island 1997.
Above right: Chick Tiwai at 44 days old and weighing 1435 grammes in his nest captivity, Codfish Island 1997.
Photos Don Merton, Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation

View 8 larger kakapo images

The slow and unsteady return from the brink of extinction .....

Life moves slowly for kapapo, and so does breeding, so two years in a row with good crops of chicks is a great lift.  The battle to save them over a period of six decades has been long and tedious, fraught with disasters, saved by dedicated tedious effort, and occasionally boosted with success.

With very limited hatchlings, and in many years none, it has been a balancing act between losses because of old age and predation, and few births.

In 2001 there were 61 birds - 36 males and 26 females.

The population got its biggest boost with 24 new chicks in 2002, bringing the total to 86.

There were four new chicks in 2005, the lowest number in the four breeding years.  The fertility rate that season was only 56 percent.

Kakapo had a good year in 2008.  All eggs were fertile, and 10 chicks raised the population to 93.  Two six year-old females bred which is young, considering the lowest previous known breeding age was nine.

The kakapo is the world's only flightless and nocturnal, heaviest, and longest living parrot.

The rapid decline of kakapo came perilously close to extinction.  In 1949 the NZ Wildlife Service realised extinction was about to occur, and conducted search expeditions in northwest Nelson, the Tararua Range and Fiordland until 1973.

During the 1960s six male kakapo were found in the Tutuko Valley at Milford Sound and Sinbad Gully beneath Mitre Peak.  All of these birds died after transfer to the Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, at a time when little was known of their habits.

It was not until 1974 that an old and worn male named Jonathon Livingston was discovered in Esperance Valley.  Eighteen kakapo were caught in Fiordland, but they were all males.  As no female had been sighted for more than 70 years, it looked as if kakapo were effectively extinct.

In 1980, one female miraculously showed up on Stewart Island, but her moment in the spotlight was shortlived as she was never seen again.  However, there was soon celebration when 200 birds were found.

Disaster struck during the next five years when feral cats devoured half of the Stewart Island population.  Drastic measures were taken in 1982 with a ten-year evacuation translocating all 61 survivors to sanctuaries free of introduced animals, on Maud and Codfish Islands off the South Island, and Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

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