One of the four male kākāpō now living at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari in Waikato. Photo / Department of Conservation
Excitement and hope were in the air as the Waikato welcomed four new residents to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari near Cambridge: kākāpō males Bunker, Māhutonga, Ōtepoti and Motupōhue – all four years old.
The feathered but flightless quartet is the first set of kākāpō in decades to live on the mainland and has been relocated from Whenua Hou Codfish Island near Rakiura Stewart Island as part of decade-long efforts to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
The Department of Conservation (DoC) and Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari say the relocation of the birds carries a message of hope and could become a glimpse into what the future could be like for several native species.
The arrival of the kākāpō was also significant to mana whenua of Maungatautari as South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu entrusted Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Raukawa, Ngāti Hauā and Waikato with caring for the birds “as if they are their own tamariki”.
DoC Kākāpō operations manager Deidre Vercoe said kakapo were once abundant all around New Zealand, but due to the introduction of predators, the numbers rapidly declined in the mid-1900s.
“Kākāpō are one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic and rare species, recovering from a population low of 51 birds in 1995. Until now, kākāpō have been contained to a few predator-free offshore islands.
“Since 2016 the population doubled to reach a high of 252 birds in 2022, and their island homes are almost at capacity.”
Despite the increasing numbers, the nocturnal parrots are still considered critically endangered, however, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari biodiversity team leader Dr Janelle Ward said welcoming back four birds was a historic event.
“It carries a message of hope: Restoration works. We can bring species back from the brink of extinction. We can help nature recover.”
Waikato Regional Council deputy chair Dr Bruce Clarkson says Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari has received “the ultimate taonga” with the kakapo which also indicates good news for other species.
“It’s a flagship for the Waikato and a model for the nation… What we have achieved here is a massive improvement in habitat quality.”
Bunker, Māhutonga, Ōtepoti and Motupōhue are only the first four kakapo to move to Sanctuary Mountain. A further six are set to follow in the near future.
Vercoe said: “Sanctuary Mountain is a large space, with plenty of good habitat for kākāpō, but it’s still unknown whether they will successfully establish here long-term.
“The main focus of this translocation is to learn if kākāpō can thrive in a fenced sanctuary while taking pressure off the islands ahead of future breeding seasons. It’s an exciting glimpse into what the future could be for our rare native birds.
“We are restoring the mauri (life force) of the kakapo, but the kakapo is also restoring the mauri of the people… [and ultimately] restoring the heartbeat of the whenua.”
The long-term goal is for kākāpō to return to their natural range on mainland Aotearoa in unmanaged populations, but they need a habitat free of predators like rats and stoats.
At 3400ha, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is the largest predator-fenced habitat in the country. In preparation for the birds’ arrival, the sanctuary had to “kākāpō-proof” a significant number of its fences, Ward said, because “kakapo can’t fly, but they sure can climb.”
Despite the fences, the kākāpō are still considered wild birds. “Kākāpō are masters at camouflage, so it is very unlikely visitors to the sanctuary will come across them,” Vercoe said. However, people may be able to hear their distinctive “booming” calls.
The fact that the four birds at the sanctuary are all male, is not a coincidence.
“This is a habitat trial and at this stage not for breeding purposes. There is no need for any females to be here when they are needed on the actual breeding islands,” Vercoe said.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu kākāpō recovery group representative Tāne Davis attributes a blend of mātauranga Māori and Western science to the success story of the bird’s breeding programme in the South Island.
“To keep the mauri of our taonga alive we have had to tweak our tikanga (traditions). Although I have felt mamae (hurt) at times, we have had to make the difficult decision to artificially inseminate kākāpō and practice double clutching to separate eggs from their parents, before hatching them using an incubator,” says Tāne Davis.
“Because the population is still low, we have also used genetic sequencing to trace the whakapapa linkages of our manu to reduce inbreeding and minimise abnormalities which were stopping eggs from hatching.”
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Deputy Kaiwhakahaere Matapura Ellison says Ngāi Tahu was thankful for the iwi ki te iwi (iwi to iwi) transfer of the four birds.
“The whanaungatanga between our iwi is strengthened further through the shared kaitiakitanga of these precious manu.”
The kākāpō first travelled by helicopter before being driven to Queenstown where they caught a flight with Air New Zealand to Auckland. From Auckland, they were driven by car to Sanctuary Mountain.
Air New Zealand is a national partner of DoC and has flown more than 4200 threatened species and Conservation Dogs since 2012.
The translocation of the kakapo to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari has been more than 15 years in the making.