The Cape Sanctuary is a 2500-hectare privately owned nature reserve at Cape Kidnappers peninsula. It has been criticised for its handling and treatment of kiwi. Photo / NZME
The Department of Conservation says it “should’ve done better” when dealing with concerns over kiwi deaths and handling practices at an iconic Hawke’s Bay location.
Despite claims of mishandling, the deaths of 25 kiwi (18 brown kiwi chicks and seven little spotted kiwi) at the privately-owned Cape Sanctuary on Cape Kidnappers over six years ago has been attributed to a dry conditions and inadequate monitoring caused by high staff turnover.
The findings came in a newly released independent review commissioned by DoC director-general Penny Nelson, off the back of concerns over treatment of kiwi at the Sanctuary.
Between 2016 and 2018, DoC said it received complaints about kiwi handling practices and a number of kiwi deaths at the sanctuary.
Independent reviewer David Shanks found a range of factors contributed to the deaths during the summer of 2016/17, including staff turnover, a very dry summer, and predation at the Sanctuary.
The report found no evidence the deaths were caused by overhandling.
It did, however, identify a number of failings in DoC’s internal practices and documentation, as well as multiple failings by Cape Sanctuary.
Among these, the review said “inaccurate and misleading statements” contained in a 2018 media statement issued by DoC had the effect of dismissing concerns that had been raised with the department.
It also found that DoC’s advice to the Minister of Conservation at the time contained a number of errors and in particular it significantly understated the actual numbers of kiwi chicks that had died.
Nelson admitted that DoC didn’t respond in the way she would have expected, so she asked for the review to identify what kind of actions were still needed.
“DoC should have done better, and we accept all the review’s recommendations. It’s our responsibility to protect kiwi and we need to do everything we can to help them thrive,” Nelson said.
“We’re committed to making the changes within DoC that we need to. We’re already working on some recommendations and have a plan in place to implement the rest over the next one to two years.”
She said the programme of work will include reviewing existing wildlife authorities to make sure the right checks and balances are in place.
It would also involve replacing the DoC permissions database, improving training for DoC staff in monitoring roles, and strengthening DoC’s compliance approach.
“Some of the recommendations have already been implemented, while others will take more time.”
Cape Sanctuary has been the subject of multiple reports over the past five years, some carried out by DoC and some external.
It sits on three properties owned by American billionaire Julian Robertson, Andy Lowe and the Hansen family.
“We have already worked closely with Cape Sanctuary in the past seven years to improve the way kiwi are managed there,” Nelson said.
“Cape Sanctuary, like many other sanctuaries, has helped increase the number of brown kiwi over the last 30 years.”
In 2018, concerns about a high number of kiwi deaths led to the discovery that the sanctuary had been running kiwi encounters without a licence and despite concerns for their welfare.
The review noted that the Sanctuary had a practice of offering ‘kiwi tours’ to paying visitors that gave them the opportunity to handle kiwi, which the review found was ‘unlawful and unnecessary’.
It was also reported that the sanctuary was operating without the proper licence to handle North Island brown kiwi, with its 2006 licence expiring in July 2011.
It did hold permits for handling little spotted kiwi, with a new one for North Island brown issued for 2018.
The review concluded that while this handling gave rise to legitimate concerns, it did not contribute to the kiwi deaths.
Forest and Bird, who raised many concerns back in 2018, welcomed the release of the review but said it was “disappointing” that it had taken five years and a change in leadership at DoC to get to this point.
In October 2019 these concerns were formally conveyed to the then director general of DoC, who then made a commitment to investigate and respond to the concerns.
“The current director general has done the right thing in commissioning this independent report,” Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki said.
While behind the release, Toki said the organisation continues to have some reservations about the recommendations of the report.
“We feel that the issues surrounding the 2019 variation were not fully and properly evaluated. Similarly, we remain concerned that the recommendation to review the approvals, when there does not appear to be a power to do this, is also questionable.
“Despite these reservations, the independent report shows all too clearly that change is needed. The recommendations need to be fully implemented as far as possible.”
Toki said Forest and Bird would be seeking assurances from DoC that the recommendations will be acted on in a timely manner and that they were taking steps to ensure similar events weren’t repeated.
Debates around kiwi handling have been an ongoing issue around the globe, with Miami Zoo’s treatment of Paora the kiwi sparking international outrage this year.
Cape Sanctuary has been no stranger to famous faces either.
Bubbalicious, who was reared at Cape Sanctuary, shot to internet stardom after appearing in a video Sir Paul posted while in Hawke’s Bay ahead of his concert in Auckland in December 2018.
Cape Sanctuary has been approached for comment.