aalong a windswept ridge line on Wellington’s south coast, above rough seas and in the shadow of humming wind turbines, 11 kiwis – New Zealand’s prized national bird – are making their home for the first time in generations.
The only flightless birds have been engaged in the week since their arrival. Each of them moved out of their temporary man-made homes and began digging burrows into the hillsides with their strong claws. They will soon line their burrows with leaves, soft moss and feathers in preparation for their huge alabaster-like eggs.
The kiwis, which will be monitored closely to ensure they establish themselves in their new habitat, are the first cohort of 250 to be introduced into the wilds around the capital over the next six years – a major milestone for a city that is proud to regenerate. native bird life.
It’s hard to know exactly when the kiwi disappeared from the city, but some conservationists believe they have been absent for more than 100 years. An estimated 12 million kiwis once roamed the country, but the introduction of predators and habitat loss has driven those numbers to worrying lows: 68,000 according to the latest estimate. Conservation efforts are starting, slowly, to increase kiwifruit numbers.
The arrival of the kiwifruit in Wellington represents years of hard work by conservationists, the establishment of the largest intensive stoat trapping network in the country and, most importantly, enthusiastic community participation, including those who would not normally be seen as conservation allies: farmers, 4WD off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers.
The release of the birds was a particularly moving moment for the man who led the project. “You know how people say they get goosebumps? I describe it as kiwi bumps,” says Paul Ward, a bird nerd who, in 2018, put his film career on hold to set up the Capital Kiwi Project, a community conservation project dedicated to reintroducing a population of kiwi wild in the capital.
Four years later, and the $4.5 million project, which receives much of its funding through Predator Free 2050 (a national pest eradication plan), has achieved its first big goal. A ceremony was held at Mākara Primary School on 19 November involving 300 people from the Capital Kiwi Project, iwi (tribe), the local community, conservation enthusiasts and landowners.
Iwi liaison and field specialist on the project, Rawiri Walsh, who is also mana whenua – meaning her iwi has land rights over the wider Wellington region – says Kiwis are a taonga, a treasure, and thought that the ceremony was a celebration of life.
“Everyone thought Kiwis would always be here, until they were — and that sense of loss ran deep,” Walsh says.
The birds – donated by Ngāti Hinewai hapū (a sub-tribe) – were relocated more than 400 km from Ōtorohanga Kiwi House to the Mākara community, about 25 minutes from central Wellington. Among the feathered group is a mating pair: a 40-year-old turkey-sized matriarch named Anahera, and her fiancé, Nouveau, 32 years her junior.
“When Anahera came out, she had this mesmerizing power: you could feel the silence in the crowd. Most of those people had never seen a kiwi before,” Ward says, adding that it was fitting that birds that arrived 80 million years before humans, and “gave us our name and are intrinsic to the our identity”, were returned to their home.
Keeping chicks alive
Ward is located on the crest line of Terawhiti Station, one of the oldest and largest sheep farms in the country, indicating the vast expanse of hilly farmland and the regeneration of native bush landowners have allowed to become the habitat of kiwis in the coming years. Next to him, veteran kiwi rancher Peter Kirkman is picking up pings on his satellite tracker from a recently released kiwi that has been tagged with a transmitting device, while his kiwi hound, C, has a nose a land in a frantic search.
The area bounded by Ward is approximately 23,000 hectares, the size of New Zealand’s famous Abel Tasman National Park. Over the past four years, a team of volunteers and project staff have installed 4,500 stoat traps nationwide, the largest intensive network of stoat traps of its kind in the country.
Kiwis, while vulnerable to larger predators such as dogs, are well equipped with strong fighting claws to attack smaller parasites, and the size and thickness of their eggs help keep predators at bay. But kiwi chicks are entirely vulnerable, especially to stoats.
If there are no controls in place, stoats will eat up to 100 percent of the chicks in their area, Ward says. The trapping net has caught 1,000 stoats since it was set up, enough dent to keep their populations at a level where kiwis are able to thrive.
As the birds mate, the monitoring team, led by Kirkman, will keep a close eye on the chicks hatching. “If we can show the Department of Conservation that we can get six out of 20 chicks up to 10 months old, that will be considered a success,” Kirkman says. “But I think we’ll get more.”
Kiwis are extraordinarily hardy birds, Ward says, noting that they can make themselves at home almost anywhere as long as there’s food: from beaches to bushland to snow-capped mountains. But it is essential that the community “take care” to make that environment as hospitable and safe as possible.
That caring, or community consensus, was evident throughout the project, says Ward, who has held countless meetings in wool sheds, town halls and cafes, where everyone they approached — from landowners, to the iwi, to schools – they gave a resounding “yes” to wanting kiwifruit in the capital.
“There has been an incredible community shift from assuming conservation is done by a Department of Conservation ranger at Fiordland or somewhere else, to being something we do in our own backyards,” Ward says.
Some of the most striking groups backing the projects have been mountain bikers and a 4WD driving club, who monitor 600 traps along part of the coast, Ward says.
“They’re stereotyped as petrolheads, but they’re actually some of our most passionate and devoted trappers.”
“You can have wild animals and people living together”
This broad acceptance by the people is likely a significant reason why Wellington is one of the few capital cities that is successfully reversing its loss of biodiversity and can boast a booming native bird population.
“I’m pretty confident there are very few cities that are seeing that level of reverse decline and then increase in so many different species,” says Stephen Hartley, director of the center for biodiversity and restoration ecology at Victoria University of Wellington .
Hartley, and his network of colleagues across the country, have been comparing the ecological status of towns in New Zealand and attempting to develop a sense of local community and council consensus on conservation.
“Wellington is at the extreme end of having the highest level of council and community engagement,” Hartley says, adding that there are more than 50 volunteer conservation groups out trapping and planting around the city. In a city with a population of just over 200,000, that’s no small feat.
He attributes much of that local interest to 30 years of effort that has resulted in a positive feedback loop, where the fruits of abundant native birdlife are visible in the city.
Meanwhile, the kiwifruit project is significant because it “shows that all kinds of green spaces have potential,” she says. Mākara’s shrubland farmland wouldn’t necessarily be an obvious choice for a kiwi habitat, he says, ‘but you don’t need to lock up native wildlife in pristine reserves or offshore locations… you can actually have wildlife and people living together “.
This is Capital Kiwi Project’s last hope, Ward adds.
“Our ambition is for people to go to sleep at night hearing the kiwifruit call, see footprints on the golf course or the paths they walk with their families – and understand what made this happen and feel a sense of stewardship over of them”.