Seventy years ago today, New Zealand was given a second chance to save a taonga once thought extinct.
On 20 November 1948 Invercargill doctor Geoffrey Orbell led a team – including Neil McCrostie, Rex Watson and Joan Telfer – deep into the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland National Park. They were on the hunt for a species declared extinct half a century before.
Spurred on by determination, and belief that previously unidentified signs – strange bird calls and footprints in the tussock – could only belong to one particular bird, the expedition came to what is now known as Lake Orbell.
There, standing half a metre high, bright iridescent blue and green and eyeing them with indifference was Notornis.
Takahē had come back from the dead. From that moment on, we had a chance to ensure takahē were never again considered extinct.
It’s a huge responsibility, and one the Department of Conservation takes very seriously. For more than 30 years now DOC has had a dedicated Takahē Recovery Programme which has grown to be one of the world’s most progressive and long-standing conservation stories.
Thanks to the passion and ingenuity of the many team members, takahē numbers are growing steadily and the population is secure in terms of numbers of breeding pairs, locations and genetic diversity.
The programme has seen many phases, from intensive hand rearing, to establishing populations on a number of mainland and island sanctuaries to the now well-oiled machine of parent birds raising 60-70 chicks per year. This has meant the team are now in the position to push the envelope and establish a second wild population in Kahurangi National Park.
Earlier this month, we had the very positive news that the first eggs of the new wild Kahurangi population had been found. The takahē team are not ones to use exclamations when it comes to talking about milestones in the species’ recovery, but this – the first time takahē have bred in the wild outside of Fiordland in possibly centuries, is time for tempered excitement.
To help celebrate the 70th anniversary and where it all began, the Takahē Recovery Programme had some very special VIPs join them in releasing a pair of takahē (sub-adults Dore and Tauhou) into the wild population and visiting Takahē Valley in the Murchison Mountains. Twelve Orbell family members (spanning three generations), four Watsons from two generations, and one of Neil McCrostie’s four sons and his wife either flew across or made the hike from Lake Te Anau up to the site of rediscovery.
Several members of the public joined them on the annual Lake Orbell Guided walk. It was a reunion of the families and a re-connection with the Takahē Recovery Programme to honour the dedication of the people who played a significant role in securing the existence of takahē for our future generations.
Later in November a further 18 birds are planned to be released in the Murchison Mountains, and in the New Year 10 additional takahē will join the Kahurangi National Park population.
Working with Ngāi Tahu and national partner Fulton Hogan we’re excited to see what’s next for this special species. In 70 years we’ve solved the “how” problem – now we need to focus on the “where to next?”