Beyond the news coverage

Department of Conservation —  10/05/2016

DOC Communications Advisor Des Williams writes about the recent translocation of little spotted kiwi from Kapiti and Mercury Islands to the Hawke’s Bay mainland haven.

It’s on the TV news, 6pm edition. DOC and several community groups have completed another species transfer from one part of the country to another.

The camera takes you to an idyllic spot, boxes are carried from vehicle or helicopter and birds are released into the wild to start a new life in a safe, pest-free habitat. New surroundings where all are going to live happily ever after, their numbers multiplying with the passing of each breeding season.

Well, that’s how the film clip usually ends. We are quite accustomed to seeing or hearing about this part of the story in the media. But how does the rest of the story go? What is actually involved in getting that precious boxed-up cargo to the edge of the forest so they can be set free to go forth and multiply?

Beyond the news coverage

In recent weeks DOC, Kiwis for kiwi, Air New Zealand and the Cape Sanctuary Trust have been involved in a complex plan, translocating little spotted kiwi (LSK) from Kapiti and Red Mercury Islands to the Hawke’s Bay mainland haven, south-east of Napier.

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Little Spotted kiwi in burrow. Photo: Andrea Hirschberg.

There were good and sound reasons for this ‘triangular’ operation, as National Office-based biodiversity technical advisor Troy Makan explains.

‘Research by Victoria University scientists and the Kiwi Recovery Group had discovered that the genetic diversity of LSK populations on Kapiti, Red Mercury and Tiritiri Matangi Islands was very low, due to the fact that the original Kapiti population was founded more than 100 years ago from just five South Island birds. This problem is known as a ‘genetic diversity bottleneck’.

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Hugh Robertson weighs a Little Spotted Kiwi. Photo: Andrea Hirschberg

‘When Tiritiri Matangi and Red Mercury LSK were settled in the 1980s, we didn’t know about the genetic limitations of their founder populations. Red Mercury was settled with 12 birds and Tiritiri Matangi with 16. The Kiwi Recovery Group quickly implemented this programme, which is aimed at rectifying the problem.’

Recommended solution? Mix the populations up a bit. Take some birds from here and put them over there; take some from over there and put them here, and transfer some from here and there into an entirely new place altogether. Like Cape Sanctuary!

Laying the groundwork

Before we get to that 90-second news clip at the end of the story, there’s a good 12 months of solid background work involved for numerous DOC staff at two or three different locations. Troy Makan continues:

‘This latest episode started last year with the transfer of 10 little spotted kiwi to Cape Sanctuary. This was something of a cautious experiment approved by the Kiwi Recovery Group, allowing for transfer and monitoring of a smaller population before deciding if a realistic founder population of say 40 birds could be established at the Cape. The experiment proved successful, and monitoring confirmed the birds had established themselves well. This paved the way to work on increasing the Cape Sanctuary population.

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Little Spotted Kiwi. Photo: Joana Mendonça

Hugh Robertson, Rogan Colbourne and two trained contractors James Fraser and Tash Coad (all with their with kiwi dogs) spent a week on Kapiti Island. They captured 25 little spotted kiwi and did disease screenings before fitting them up with transmitters to make them easier to catch later. Hugh and Rogan then did the same on Red Mercury, catching 10 birds and putting transmitters on.

‘Hugh and Rogan then came back to Kapiti a week later with Tamsin Ward-Smith from Cape Sanctuary. They caught all 25 birds again and the extra five not required this time were re-released. From there the story pretty much follows what’s been in the media. Ten birds were taken by boat and road to Cape Sanctuary. Ten were flown by Air New Zealand with Iwi representatives and Kiwis for kiwi to Auckland and by chopper to Whitianga.

As to catching the birds involved in the transfers, it’s quite easy to pick them up as required once they have been ‘transmittered’. Though Troy can relate that one of the birds he chased on a long and exhausting journey around Kapiti was actually a tokoeka, and when he radioed back to Hugh Robertson that he had caught the bird, Hugh (keeper of important data!) informed him they wouldn’t actually be needing that one!

As to the rest of the story? Well, it was on the 6 o’clock news! And in the papers …