Kakapo: The world’s largest parrot and the birth of active conservation

Our world is facing a biodiversity crisis so severe that many scientists have labeled it as the sixth great mass extinction in Earth’s history. Conservation efforts to date have focused on endangered species and  “biodiversity hotspots” , relatively small areas with large numbers of species. Most of these hotspots are in areas you’d expect them to be, places like coral reefs and tropical rain forests. One surprising biodiversity hotspot is New Zealand.

Though New Zealand is best known for it’s two largest islands, the country has over 700 islands larger than one hectare. Additionally, New Zealand is isolated- hundreds of miles of Pacific ocean separate it from Australia, and it’s farther still from Asia or South America.  Similar to the Galapagos, this isolation has led to an extremely high rate of “endemic” species, plants and animals that are native to an area and aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.

New Zealand is particularly famous for its unique birds. You may have heard of the kiwi, a word which has become slang for a New Zealander*, but this nation is also known as the “seabird capital of the world“. In total, there are more than 60 endemic bird species found there.

Reproduction of an image from "Birds of New Zealand" by Walter Buller, published 1873. Public domain image.

One of these endemic birds is the Kakapo, the world’s largest parrot. Flightless and nocturnal, these amazing birds live in forests. Like many of New Zealand’s birds, they are threatened by invasive mammal species such as rats, cats, and stoats (weasel-like creatures). Having evolved in an environment without these animals, the native birds are defenseless against them. Kakapo populations were devastated- down to just a few dozen animals individuals in the entire world.

New Zealanders have earned their reputation as one of the most conservation-friendly nations on Earth, and they wanted to help, but existing conservation strategies were useless to save the kakapo. Passive conservation (National Parks, marine protected areas, etc) focuses on limiting human influence and letting the natural balance restore itself. Using passive conservation strategies would have resulted in the extinction of the Kakapo. Something much more radical was needed.

It’s basically impossible to eradicate invasive mammals from an area as large as New Zealand’s main islands. However, the smaller islands (recall that there are over 700 of these) are much more manageable. Dedicated conservationists and government scientists began a campaign to eradicate invasive mammals from a small island in the 1980’s, and they were successful! The kakapos were moved to a new home free of rats, cats, and stoats.

Photo credit: Brent Barrett, Wikimedia Commons

That last sentence  constitutes what was at the time one of the most radical conservation strategies in the history of human civilization, so it’s worth repeating. Managers didn’t declare native kakapo habitat a national park and make it illegal to hunt them, or illegal to develop the area for humans. Instead, every single kakapo in the entire world (at the time, there were 65) was caught, removed from their native forest, and transported to a small island whose ecosystem had been modified just for them. The species was saved from extinction, and “active conservation” was born.

2011 was a sad year for kakapo conservation, because both Richard Henry (then the world’s oldest kakapo) and Don Merton (a researcher instrumental in creating the phenomenally-successful kakapo recovery programme) passed away. Despite that, things are looking up for the species. 11 fledglings were born in 2011, bringing the world population to 129 spread over a few isolated (and protected) islands. A dedicated research team closely monitors their health and numbers, even influencing their sex ratios (with kakapos, the quality of diet right before mating determines whether male or female nestlings are born). Thanks to radio collars, scientists know exactly where every single kakapo on the planet is at all times, and all of them have names.

Kakapos are an amazing species not just because of their biology, but because of the incredible lengths that New Zealanders went to in order to conserve them. Thanks to revolutionary active conservation techniques, which have since been implemented for other endemic New Zealand birds and for other animals around the world, future generations may get to see the world’s largest parrot.

* New Zealanders became known as Kiwis during World War One, when British soldiers in the trenches with them noted that they use Kiwi-brand shoe polish. The logo was, of course, a Kiwi bird.



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January 4, 2012 • 3:32 pm