Yesterday we launched Predator Free New Zealand, a new initiative that the Morgan Foundation are involved with. Predator Free New Zealand has been set up to support the efforts of the many community groups already out there eradicating and controlling predators. To illustrate the work being done, we take a look at the Kōkako Recovery Project, which has been operating in the Hunua Ranges for two decades. Predator Free New Zealand is there to honour and celebrate the work of these community groups, as well as encourage greater effort to remove the threat to our native species from mammalian predators.
The unsung heroes of Conservation
The fact that we still have so many native species is a testament to the hard work of many unsung heroes that have contributed to controlling and eradicating mammalian predators. There are some fantastic professionals in this area, and New Zealand is seen as a leader in this field of pest eradication and control – so much so that Kiwis are involved in most major predator operations around the world. The skilled staff and millions of dollars invested by DOC, OSPRI, Councils, Landcare and other organisations are thoroughly deserving of this status, but most Kiwis don’t realise it.
Even more unsung is the hard work of many thousands of volunteers who together have given immeasurable hours to the cause. These volunteers spend their free hours trudging steep tracks, checking traps and bait stations, and cleaning out corpses of possums, ferrets, feral cats, rats and stoats. All so our native flora and fauna can return to the forests. The case study of the Kōkako Recovery Project (below) is a great example of the huge effort that is put in by volunteer groups.
What we are doing is not enough
Sadly, even this gargantuan effort is not enough. We are still losing the fight against introduced predators. We are losing 2% of our Kiwi every year – about 27 more are killed than are born every week. With only 70,000 left, at this rate they could be facing extinction in 50 years.
To win this battle we have to work smarter. The predator eradication sector is enthusiastic but fragmented. We need to use our resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. We have to get everyone adopting best practice. We need to invest in new technology so that volunteers can achieve more with their time. Finally we have to make sure that all this work is not frustrated by other policies that undo the efforts so many thousands of people are making. Predator Free New Zealand is established to provide that support, inspiration, and enthusiasm.
In the spirit of the voluntary groups out there, Predator Free New Zealand is itself run on a lot of volunteer effort also. It is run on donations from those who believe in the economic, social and cultural benefits that predator eradication bestows.
Honouring the people doing the hard yards
As part of this launch, we want to honour the hard work that is going into saving our native species by those dealing to the predators that threaten them – stoats, ferrets, possums, feral cats and rats. There are thousands of groups, each with a dedicated group of people at their core, putting their blood, sweat and time into this cause. And the only reward they get is the sound of our native birdcalls returning to the forest around our towns and cities.
To illustrate this work, below we look at just one of the many stories out there – the remarkable story of the Kōkako Recovery Project in the Hunua Ranges.[box]
Kōkako Recovery Project
There is no better example of this than the Kōkako Recovery Project in the Hunua ranges south east of Auckland.
You may not have heard of the kōkako, because it is a rare threatened species. It’s a handsome bird with a grey coat, resplendent with bright blue wattles and a black mask. The bird also adorns the back of our $50 note. Its most incredible feature is the haunting call.
A Potted History of the Hunua kōkako
In the 1950s there were around 500 birds in the Hunuas, but human and predator interaction took their toll over time. In one nearby pub during the 1980s there were still kererū raffles. One rather ‘sick-looking kererū’ turned out to be a kōkako. When local iwi caught wind of this, a rāhui (ban) was put on hunting. But the kōkako still had to contend with predators, and by the early 90s the Hunua kōkako were in perilous decline – there were 25 kōkako were surveyed in 1994; with just one of them female. Female kōkako are particularly susceptible to predators while they sit on the nest.
In 1994 the Council and Department of Conservation banded together to save the Hunua kōkako. Their first job was to get more females. The rest of the clucky blokes did their best to pair up regardless, but without much luck. The kōkako desperately needed some fresh blood for the population to survive, so they shipped in a few females from the King Country. Sadly, the King Country kōkako couldn’t talk to the Auckland lot. One of the rangers joked that the King Country birds fancied “instant coffee!” while Auckland lot preferred their “lattē”. The King Country birds flew home, and the first attempt to enlarge the population flopped like a kererū after too many puriri berries.
The next attempt was more successful – this time they imported couples from the King Country. These immigrants happily set up new nests in the Hunuas. The adults didn’t talk to the locals, but it didn’t matter because their young grew up hearing the calls of Hunua kōkako, so were bilingual. The interbreeding began!
There are now at least 55 kōkako breeding pairs in the ranges: already eclipsing the project’s 2020 target.
Killing to Save Lives
The secret to this success story has been the huge effort put into trapping by volunteers. In 1994 a kōkako management area was established by staff and volunteers, and a network of bait stations and traps. This networks now covers nearly 1500 hectares. About 1600 hours a year are contributed by 50-60 volunteers. Over twenty years that adds up to 32,000 hours spent trudging the steep slopes of the Hunuas, thick with mud and supplejack, to check and re-bait these traps and bait stations. This effort has kept stoat, possum and rat numbers down at manageable levels, giving the kōkako a shot at recovery. It has also benefitted a bunch of other species along the way – including Hochstetters frogs, bellbirds, kaka, kererū and tomtits just to name a few.
Full credit goes to the Auckland Council, the Department of Conservation, and countless volunteers whose blood, sweat and tears is now embodied in this 100+ population of kōkako.