Making more takahē: The work of the Takahē Recovery Programme

Department of Conservation —  20/04/2020

This blog post was written by Julie Harvey, a dedicated Takahē Recovery Programme ranger.

What does it really mean to be involved in a “recovery programme”?

For the Takahē Recovery team, we are in the business of making more takahē, as well as keeping the current population safe, which often means not putting all our eggs in one basket.

What is Takahē Recovery?

The Takahē Recovery Programme is one of DOC’s dedicated conservation programmes, designed to ensure that takahē are never again considered extinct. But, takahē recovery is more than ensuring there is a growing number of takahē – it’s about making sure takahē remain a part of our wild grassland landscapes for future generations. Takahē recovery will be achieved when takahē have returned to the wild, in large growing populations, which no longer require intensive management.

The Programme is governed by a Recovery Plan (currently in draft), which has clear goals and objectives to direct the work. It is also overseen by a Recovery Group, which is made up of specialists, including iwi and researchers, who provide advice into the Programme’s management decisions.

The Takahē Recovery Programme is also more than just DOC. Takahē are a taonga for Ngāi Tahu, who are DOC’s primary partner in takahē recovery, ensuring kaitiakitanga can be recognised and utilised. Fulton Hogan teamed up with DOC as the national partner of the Programme in 2016 and the New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Foundation and our ‘official supplier’ Mitre 10 New Zealand provide ongoing support. There is also a large network of sanctuary sites and support organisations that help keep takahē safe around the country.

Takahē release at Gouland Downs | Image Credit: Danilo Hegg

What are the key ingredients of takahē recovery?

1. Managing Wild Populations: protecting the free range takahē  

The last remaining takahē population was found in the remote Murchison Mountains above Lake Te Anau in 1948.  For over 70 years protecting this population has been the Programme’s highest priority.  Ensuring the original population persists, means the “essence” (both wild behaviours and genetics) of the wild takahē is not lost.  The biggest threat to wild takahē populations is predation from introduced mammals.  Currently, extensive stoat trapping networks are maintained to help protect the wild populations in Fiordland and Kahurangi National Park.

In order to return takahē to the wild, the programme is working hard to establish new wild sites where takahē can roam free. However, finding those new suitable sites is the Takahē Recovery Programme’s largest challenge, as takahē populations require a lot of space with low predator numbers.

Can you see Kotahi, a South Island takahē? Image Credit: Jake Osborne

2. Security Population: ensuring all the eggs aren’t in one basket

Small groups of takahē also live across a network of island and mainland sanctuary sites throughout New Zealand. Although each sanctuary isn’t big enough to house a functioning wild population, together they make up a security population.  It’s so called as it is a safe genetic bank, holding the genetic diversity of the population. If catastrophe should hit a wild population or the Burwood Takahē Centre, the hub of breeding programme, the population could be rebuilt from the sanctuary population.

Hand pointing to takahē footprints in Takahē Valley | Image Credit: Sabine Bernert

3. Breeding Programme: counting takahē eggs before they hatch

Monitoring nesting activity, checking egg fertility, fostering chicks, and targeted genetic management, are all techniques used to maximise the breeding output at the Burwood Takahē Centre.  The chicks produced from Burwood and the sanctuary sites provide the literal nest egg of birds available to be released into the wild.

Takahē feeding its chick at Burwood Bush, near Te Anau, Southland | Image Credit: Sabine Bernert

4. Population Management: keeping all the takahē in a row

A healthy takahē population includes high levels of genetic diversity and equal sex ratios to maximise breeding potential.  To achieve this DOC’s Takahē Recovery Team intensively manage which birds are destined for which site and who they are paired with (although sometimes the birds have other ideas).

Multiple takahē at Burwood Takahē Centre | Image Credit: DOC

5. Research: eggs-ploring our options

We are continually reviewing everything we do, and always seeking new tools to improve the success of managing the species. The current research focus is mapping the takahē genome, and seeking a snapshot of true genetic relatedness and existing diversity within the population. Significant effort is also being put into improving knowledge of the response of takahē to various predator control methods. For wild populations to thrive, it is critical that pest control is effective and compatible with takahē.

Takahē ranger monitoring in the Murchison Mountains

Piecing it all together

The above ingredients, along with the network of people across Aotearoa that make it possible, are all interconnected and equally important in helping reach our ultimate goal – returning takahē to the wild.

So, armed with the above tool kit and the drive to push the envelope and continuously learn, the Takahē Recovery Programme is seeing some significant wins. Annual growth rates are at least 10% per year, genetic management is reducing the level of inbreeding and establishing further wild sites is becoming a reality.  But we still have a lot of mahi (work) to do before we can say we have reached takahē recovery, we cannot take our foot off the accelerator yet.

4 responses to Making more takahē: The work of the Takahē Recovery Programme

    Sue Bradbury 27/04/2020 at 12:01 am

    Very interesting to learn more about this amazing bird. There’s alot of effort that goes into this programme, which is brilliant.

    Susan Russell 25/04/2020 at 6:36 am

    Nice article enjoyed learning about these birds

    Claudia Mason 24/04/2020 at 6:53 pm

    You are doing a fantastic amount of good work. All the best

    Peter Hallinan 20/04/2020 at 3:04 pm

    an interesting and comprehensive overview of one of our avian taonga. Congratulations to all involved.