Restoring the mauri of kākāpō in Aotearoa

Department of Conservation —  25/07/2023 — 5 Comments

By Andie Gentle, DOC Kākāpō Advocacy

It’s official – a new kākāpō population has been released at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. This means kākāpō are back living on the mainland for the first time in almost four decades. Let’s take a deeper look into why this is such an important milestone for kākāpō conservation and how it supports our Kākāpō Recovery Programme’s major goal for the species.   

Ōtepoti checking out his new habitat after his release into Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
📷: Karl Drury for DOC

The journey so far

Kākāpō are a taonga (sacred treasure) of the Māori iwi (tribe) of southern New Zealand, Ngāi Tahu. They are also one of the world’s most unique, rare and loved parrots.  

Before human settlement kākāpō were abundant throughout New Zealand. Population numbers dropped swiftly due to hunting, introduced predators (particularly stoats, rats and feral cats) and land clearance. Conservation efforts began in 1894, but by the mid-1900s, kākāpō teetered on the edge of extinction.

From the 1950s extensive searches were conducted to find any remnant individuals. By the late 1970s only 18 male kākāpō had been discovered in Fiordland. Then, a breakthrough find – a small population with females on Rakiura/Stewart Island. Feral cats threatened this precious population, so efforts to move these kākāpō to safer, offshore islands began in the 1980s. By 1995 a total of 51 birds were left and relocated, with just 20 living females. DOC established the Kākāpō Recovery Programme with an aim to restore the mauri (life force) of kākāpō.  

A throwback to kākāpō conservation: Don Merton holding two kākāpō transfer cages in Esperance Valley, Fiordland 1974
📷: DOC

Ever since, each kākāpō has been individually managed on predator free islands through intensive monitoring, research, science, technology and breeding programmes.  

This work has been supported by treaty partner Ngāi Tahu and national partners Rio Tinto (1990-2015) and Meridian (2016-current). Without it, and the exhaustive conservation efforts of the 1980s, it’s fair to say kākāpō would almost certainly be extinct. Instead, we can tell a collective success story in numbers – the kākāpō population has increased almost fivefold since the programme started in 1995 and has doubled in the last 10 years. There are 248 kākāpō alive today.   

So, we are heading in the right direction – but where?   

The challenge

This population increase is encouraging news for the species but also presents new challenges.  

The predator-free kākāpō breeding islands, Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, Pukenui/Anchor Island and Te Kākahu/Chalky Island are at capacity. Yes – they can have too many kākāpō. High concentration can create physical competition for breeding sites and habitat (kākāpō v kākāpō!) and heightens risks of devastation from disease, pest incursion or natural disaster. As the population grows, it’s also infeasible to continue to manage the species with the same level of intensity that we do now. Finding suitable new habitat is our most pressing challenge and establishing new, low-management populations is the only sustainable answer to secure the future of kākāpō. 

Long-term solutions are large-scale predator-free habitats (such as Rakiura/Stewart Island). This outlook relies almost entirely on the success of Predator Free Rakiura and Predator Free 2050. These movements work towards an Aotearoa where our native species are safe from extinction and thrive alongside us; supporting our goal – to return kākāpō to their natural range throughout mainland Aotearoa in unmanaged populations.  

For now though, a stepping stone is needed. The number of kākāpō living on the islands needs to reduce before the next breeding season (estimated to occur in 2026 or 2027) and the next, and the next, and the next. Mainland fenced sanctuaries currently provide a potential solution.  

Enter, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.  

A welcome sanctuary

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a 3400-hectare sanctuary in Waikato, and its ecosystem is as close to the pre-human New Zealand environment as it gets. With one of the world’s longest pest-proof fences (47km) it acts as a haven for many of New Zealand’s most endangered species.  

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
📷: Sue Dela Ru

The sanctuary’s extensive predator control regime paired with palatable plant species, topography and climate make it a suitable mainland habitat for kākāpō. Good site access and infrastructure supports low-cost and low-carbon management for kākāpō, and introducing kākāpō adds further biodiversity value to the site.  

Ōtepoti, Motupōhue, Māhutonga and Bunker – four young male kākāpō – were translocated from Whenua Hou/Codfish Island and are now the first kākāpō to trial living at the sanctuary. All going well, another five or six kākāpō could join them before the end of the year. The site will initially be established with a male-only population to test the habitat quality while also taking population pressure off the breeding islands in the south. The new mainland birds are carefully selected males, each from lineages already well represented in the kākāpō gene pool. For now, the females are all needed on the established breeding islands.

DOC ranger Petrus Hedman carrying Māhutonga ahead of the release at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
📷: Peter Drury for DOC

For our recovery programme, this move offers a valuable chance to learn how kākāpō interact with different plant species and whether they can thrive in the fenced habitat. If so, in future the site may have potential to house many more kākāpō and could function as a breeding site.    

Maungatautari Biosecurity Team Leader Owen Woodward leads the procession as the four kākāpō were welcomed to the Sanctuary
📷: Peter Drury for DOC

The undertaking

Getting Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari to the point of being ready to receive the first kākāpō took dedicated efforts from all involved. The concept had been in discussion for more than 15 years. Planning began in earnest with the initiation of the Kākāpō Expansion Project, funded by the International Visitor Levy from 2020.  

The Kākāpō Recovery Team works in partnership with our treaty partner Ngāi Tahu, with the support of our national partner Meridian. Together, we joined forces with Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari (supported through their partner Mother Earth) and local iwi, Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Raukawa, Ngāti Hauā, and Waikato Tainui to ensure the success of the translocation. 

Co-chair of the Ngāti Korokī Kahukura Trust Rahui Papa blessing the four taonga manu (treasured birds)
📷: Peter Drury for DOC

The major undertaking at the sanctuary ahead of the translocation was modifying its fence to not only keep predators out, but also keep kākāpō in! Kākāpō may be flightless but are very adept climbers and use their wings to break falls from heights.

In 2021 our team undertook trials of fence barrier prototypes to find the most suitable solution. As a result, a strip of colour steel sheet was added halfway up the inside of the fence. This adaptation was added to the external fence over eight months by a team of about 30 Sanctuary staff and volunteers. More than 1500 trap boxes and 50 gates were also modified to be “kākāpō proof”.  

The Sanctuary’s pest-free fence, featuring modification to help keep kākāpō in
📷: Supplied

In theory (and in the advance-testing) the fence modification creates a complete kākāpō barrier; but we never underestimate the abilities of a kākāpō! It is possible tall trees could provide avenues for astute kākāpō to escape, so until the birds have fully explored their new site, the true viability of the fence can’t be known. To best manage this risk, vegetation around the perimeter fence has been cut back where possible and kākāpō locations will be closely monitored, including GPS tracking. 

Te Rapa and Maniopoto DOC teams prepare to remove vegetation around fence line
📷: Aaron Lunt, DOC

Implementing infrastructure to monitor each bird was another important part of the new site preparation. DOC’s kākāpō rangers spent several weeks on location installing a remote radio network monitoring system while navigating challenges around reception issues and tall trees blocking the solar panels powering the system. 

A kākāpō monitoring device on a highpoint in Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
📷: Jake Osborne

Each kākāpō wears a small, backpack-style transmitter connected to a network which passively listens and collects data, allowing our rangers to check the daily activity of the birds. This system, alongside use of a location-detecting drone, provides ground-breaking methods of monitoring kākāpō and detecting health concerns. This technology reduces the number of labour-intensive health and location checks required and will be one of the most important tools used at the sanctuary to help us learn how the birds are adapting to their new habitat.

Special significance

This step in kākāpō conservation carries great significance and emotion for many with long-time involvement in the protection of the species. In being the first kākāpō to live on the mainland in almost four decades, the unsuspecting manu (birds) have found themselves at the centre of a symbolic moment for conservation, cemented through iwi-to-iwi relations.   

To help restore the mauri (lifeforce) of the species, Ngāi Tahu now share these taonga manu (treasured bird) with the iwi and hapū of Maungatautari through the concept of whāngai (to be fostered). As part of the release, Ngāi Tahu officially passed the kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of the living taonga to receiving iwi; Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Raukawa, Ngāti Hauā and Waikato Tainui.  

Our national partner Meridian Energy also acknowledges the significance of this translocation and the collaborative work it’s taken to get here. Meridian has been part of the kākāpō recovery journey for seven years now through funding, electrical infrastructure, technology and volunteering support.  

Settling in

There are several factors at play when it comes to the success and longevity of this translocation, and every day will provide crucial lessons to help the future of the species. To give the birds the best chance at settling in, they will remain wild and undisturbed, while expert rangers keep a watchful eye on them.  

This means the nocturnal, highly cryptic kākāpō won’t be seen by the public on the mainland – Kākāpō a Tinana  Mauri Matahunahuna – Kākāpō in the flesh, hidden from the eye. Instead, visitors to the sanctuary will know they are in the presence of the critically endangered kākāpō while having directly contributed towards their care.  

Although not visible, the potential to have the kākāpō’s distinctive “booming” and “chinging” calls heard in Waikato for the first time in generations is profound. It’s our hope this symphony of nature will offer a glimpse beyond Predator Free 2050, to a time when the heartbeat of Aotearoa is restored.  

Ōtepoti tentatively taking his first steps into his new habitat
📷: Karl Drury for DOC

Get involved

Together with our partners we are grateful for the ongoing commitment from our supporters, both nationally and worldwide. Public donations help cover our operational costs, and engagement from communities far and wide helps to spread the word of this important conservation work.  

There are lots of ways you can join the team helping ensure a brighter future for kākāpō: 

Kākāpō Recovery website
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari website
Predator Free NZ Trust – Get involved in backyard trapping 
Removing predators from Stewart Island/Rakiura

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram and share our stories
Subscribe to our e-newsletter: Kākāpō Recovery update
Join Predator Free 2050
Donate towards the health and vitality (Mauri Ora) of kākāpō

5 responses to Restoring the mauri of kākāpō in Aotearoa


    My husband and I were thrilled to be a part of one Sirocco’s original visits back in 2012 to see what the maunga was all about! So thrilled to see this dream come to fruition!


    I like kakapo

    ingibjorg johannesdottir 27/07/2023 at 9:03 am

    Good luck in your new home.Love those birds


    Such a great work! Thank you so much for everything. I hope the heartbeat of Aotearoa is restored is restored soon.


    Thank you to all who have helped the kakapo get to this historic event.

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