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Kākāpō in Waikato: DoC reduces number of birds at Sanctuary Mountain after escape attempts

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Motupōhue has been released in Waikato in July and is now back down south. Photo / Peter Drury, Department of Conservation

Three kākāpō have been moved out of Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari to a safer location on an island after several escape attempts.

Kākāpō are flightless but their ability to use their wings to parachute off tall trees and over the predator proof fences is causing a headache for staff at the sanctuary.

The Department of Conservation has made the decision to temporarily relocate Motupōhue, Manawanui and Kanawera back to a southern predator-free island while they work on a less labour-intensive way of monitoring the birds.

Another bird called Tautahi escaped the sanctuary in October, and since then a further two kākāpō have found a way over the fence.

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Motupōhue, who was part of the first cohort transferred in July, found his way outside the wire twice.

While Manawanui and Kanawera have not breached the fence, they created a high monitoring workload by spending a lot of time near it. There were still seven kākāpō in the sanctuary.

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari general manager Helen Somerville said the team was still learning about the kākāpō but expected to be able to reduce the “hands-on monitoring” by now.

“However, this hasn’t been possible and the team is traversing our incredible sanctuary every day checking on bird locations, and this method is simply not sustainable.

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“People think the birds have a GPS tracker and we can see where they are on our phones at all times. This is not the case. We have to triangulate them.”

Triangulation is a method for determining a position based on the distance from other points or objects that have known locations.

“We have a two-strike policy for the kākāpō, meaning if a bird departs twice, they have to go.”

Kākāpō male Manawanui has also moved out of the Sanctuary. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer
Kākāpō male Manawanui has also moved out of the Sanctuary. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer

This is why Motupōhue has been chosen to relocate back south. The other two birds were chosen because they were still very unsettled, Somerville said.

“There is a risk that we can go down to five [birds] if the others who escaped before got out again.”

She said Tautahi was now more settled after his escape attempt and it was important for the trial to keep one-time escapees at the sanctuary.

“If we take a bird away once they make an escape attempt, we won’t be able to learn from it.”

Somerville said the team was “absolutely sad” to see the three birds go, but they not only had to consider the individual bird’s welfare but the welfare of the whole population.

“It is a trial… and we know [the relocation of the three kākāpō] is temporary. We have no confirmed date yet, for when we will get them back, but we hope to know more within the next six months.”

The team was now waiting to find out about what other technology there was to help monitor the kākāpō. Sanctuary Mountain already started trialling a special drone.

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Sanctuary Mountain covers an area of 3400 ha, with 47 km of predator-proof fence. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer
Sanctuary Mountain covers an area of 3400 ha, with 47 km of predator-proof fence. Photo / Danielle Zollickhofer

“It has been very helpful … especially around the fence line. But it broke down after the birds escaped.”

She said while the drone was making the monitoring job easier, “it doesn’t change how we do things” and even if it was repaired, temporarily reducing the number of kākāpō at the Sanctuary was still the best option.

DOC Kākāpō Operations Manager Deidre Vercoe said departures from the fenced sanctuary were an expected challenge of the trial, but the four escape attempts meant an increase in monitoring was still needed.

“The kākāpō wear transmitters and are regularly monitored by rangers, but there are some limitations with the technology … Reducing the population means staff can keep closer tabs on the [kākāpō] while still preserving the integrity of the trial.”

DoC and Sanctuary Mountain staff assume the kākāpō escaped the sanctuary by using vegetation, like trees.

“Kākāpō are flightless but are excellent climbers who can use their wings to parachute from treetops. The average canopy height at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is higher than in the southern islands. Taller trees mean greater parachuting distances,” Vercoe said.

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Vegetation was cleared before the transfer and is ongoing.

Despite the escape attempts, all kākāpō were doing well at Sanctuary Mountain.

“They are in good condition, passing their health checks and exploring their new territory. It’s just some of them are very interested in the fence. It could be an age thing or a behavioural thing, we just don’t know yet.

“But that is the purpose of a trial – to prepare, watch, learn and adapt as needed and taking risks is part of that,” Vercoe said.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Kākāpō Species Representative Tāne Davis said Ngāi Tahu has worked closely with ngā iwi ki Maungatautari to work out what’s best for the birds.

“Our curious taonga will always test us. We have learned a lot since the manu were first released on Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari and I know they will continue to teach us more as they adapt to life on the mainland.

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“These learnings are crucial if we want kākāpō to thrive within our communities and backyards in the decades to come.”

With Motupōhue, Manawanui and Kanawera having moved out, the Waikato-based kākāpō population decreased from ten to seven birds.

The first group of four kākāpō was relocated in July as the second cohort of birds moved to the Waikato in September.

The translocation is part of a trial to see whether the nocturnal parrots can thrive in a fenced sanctuary because the predator-free islands are close to capacity.

Sanctuary Mountain was chosen because at 3400ha, it is the largest predator-fenced habitat in the country.

Danielle Zollickhofer is a multimedia journalist based in Hamilton. She joined NZME in 2021 and is writing for the Waikato Herald.

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