Region: Bay of Plenty
Project type: Forest
Key custodians: Mangaroa/Ohotu Trust
In 2005 the Mangaroa/Ohotu Trust on behalf of Te Whānau a Apanui iwi had a long-cherished dream to return kōkako to their land come true. Eighteen birds were released into Ngapukeariki, near Omaio part of the Mangaroa/Ohotu covenant 60 kilometres east of Opotiki.
Kōkako awaiting release at Ngapukeariki
The bird, iconic to the iwi, had vanished as it was unable to protect itself from introduced predators. The forest it once dwelt in was degenerating too for the same reason.
The Ngapukeariki area within the kawenata boundary was selected to receive the kōkako because it had been a natural habitat and the area is steeped in spiritual, historical and cultural richness. A primary step in the process, putting in place an intensive pest management programme, took place several years prior to the release.
Releasing a relocated kōkako
The North Island kōkako, a sleek blue-grey forest dwelling bird are an ‘A1a’ category endangered species. Once common right throughout the North Island and on the Great Barrier Islands, nowadays they are found in a few isolated areas of dense forest, in controlled sanctuaries or in managed sites both on and off shore. Because they are very poor fliers, the principal threats to their survival are rats, stoats and possums. These, together with hugely decreased forest areas have caused their population to plummet. Direct positive intervention has restored numbers from an estimated 350 pairs in the 1980’s to a current estimate of 640 pairs.
The kōkako successfully brought ‘home’ to Ngapukeariki came from Matahi Valley, Waimana in the Otamatuna (Tūhoe) area. A management programme had been undertaken by the Department of Conservation Opotiki with the kōkako numbers increasing steadily to the point where kōkako were available for translocation to other areas.
The entire translocation project took many months of planning. Firstly discussions were held between the Tūhoe iwi and Te Whānau a Apanui and then permission was needed from the Department of Conservation which included detailing how the operation would be carried out.
Keen to reduce stress to an absolute minimum Nga Whenua Rahui staff researched methods of translocation. The one most frequently used in previous translocations required an aviary to temporarily house birds prior to release. It is known that this caging or containment causes undue stress to the birds. For this reason an alternate method of releasing the birds directly into the environment (hard release) was selected to minimise the physical handling of kōkako throughout the translocation process. This involved acoustic anchoring, a system which focuses on very careful analysis of the song of the bird being transferred. The recordings that are used in the acoustic anchoring provide the birds with the dialect associated with their original home range.
The theory put forward to the Department of Conservation was by playing strategically placed recordings of kōkako song, Nga Whenua Rahui staff could simulate a perfect kōkako environment. This, if proved correct, would allow the birds to adapt to their new home more quickly and far less stressfully than the traditional aviary method. The aviary system would become redundant, as the birds own ‘song’ would then serve to anchor them within their new surroundings. The kōkako would be naturally contained rather than forcibly constrained.
Throughout July-August, 2005, staff made three trips into the Matahi Valley to catch the kōkako. Their own song was played to them as part of a typical dawn chorus blended with songs of other birds in the area. The idea was that the kōkako would come to investigate and when they did, the catching team would net them. It worked and they were able to catch nineteen birds.
Once netted, aside from a complete physical assessment, each bird was fitted with individualised identification bands and a transmitter so they could be monitored in their future home.
On arrival at Ngapukeariki, the birds once again, had their song played to them from a network of speakers suspended in trees along prominent highpoints as reassurance to the birds that they were in the right place. This practice was continued every morning for approximately three weeks until Nga Whenua Rahui staff were completely satisfied the kōkako had accepted their new surroundings.
The translocation coupled with rigorous pest control has been a total success with ongoing monitoring by staff showing the kōkako have established territories within their adopted home. Five pairs established and one chick fledged successfully.
Partners in protection
In order to facilitate the process and implement their plan Nga Whenua Rahui sought and received the support and technical assistance of Dr Laura Molles, an animal behavioural scientist from Lincoln University, Canterbury. The necessary training of Nga Whenua Rahui staff (who were tangata whenua) for the capture and handling of the birds was led by Mr Jeff Hudson, who had been instrumental in the resurgence of kōkako populations within the Northern Te Urewera. Considerable time was spent learning and mastering the varied aspects through hands on involvement by staff members.
The people who took part in the project, ngā hapu Te Whānau a Apanui and Nga Whenua Rahui staff, have many reasons to feel proud. This is the largest transfer of the species yet and the first successful release straight into the ‘wild’ with minimal use of an aviary.
It took imagination, dedication, modern technology and the kōkako’s own song to make it possible.
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