Changing Planet

New Zealand’s Spokesbird Sirocco the Kākāpō

This week I met Sirocco the kākāpō, spokesbird for New Zealand conservation. The kākāpō are an emblematic species for New Zealand conservation, and typifying island conservation. The species displays all the hallmarks of island adaptation – flightlessness and gigantism, and on top of that being nocturnal and lek breeding. This certainly makes the species bizarre enough. As for many island bird species following human arrival, the kākāpō were steadily in decline and nearly disappeared from Fiordland in southern New Zealand, and the last breeding population was on southern Stewart Island. The cause of their disappearance was predation by feral cats and stoats. By translocating the surviving birds to predator-free offshore islands and ambitiously investing in a recovery programme the NZ Department of Conservation with support from industry sponsors (e.g. NZ aluminium smelters) have been able to recover the slow-breeding kākāpō to over one hundred individuals. This amazing conservation feat was initiated by the renowned modern-day island conservation expert Don Merton, who also recovered the black robin from the precipice of extinction of only one breeding pair.

Sirocco the kākāpō at Maungatautari (Photo: James Russell)

Sirocco was hand-raised in captivity and imprinted on by humans and so makes a great spokesbird to travel the country and share the conservation message and allow people to see this unique beautiful bird species otherwise restricted to far away islands. This was my second encounter with Sirocco having been lucky enough to see him on his first ‘rock star tour’ on Ulva Island in August 2006. Sirocco’s unique character has led to many mis-adventures, such as his infamous mating attempt with zoologist Mark Carwardine while filming a documentary. For this current sojourn Sirocco was staying at Maungatautari mainland island, and the eco-sanctuary put on an amazing immersive experience including a theatrical introduction by Richard Henry ‘himself’, one of the first island conservationists in New Zealand. ‘Richard Henry’ explained the history of his work in New Zealand to try and set-up the first island reserve for birds on Resolution Island in 1894 only to be thwarted by the invasion of stoats which swam across the channel separating the island from the mainland. In memory of this the last Fiordland kākāpō was named after Richard Henry.

Richard Henry's reconstructed hut
Richard Henry’s reconstructed hut at Maungatautari (Photo: James Russell)
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.
  • john wright

    I watched the program about New Zealand which I found fascinating. especially the part about the Kakapo. What a great success albeit slow, but very rewarding for all concerned. My congratulations go out to everyone involved, their dedication is to be admired.

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