The de­cline of the hum­ble kiwi

South Shore Breaker - - Events - ZACK MET­CALFE THE EN­DAN­GERED PER­SPEC­TIVE zack.met­[email protected]

A few weeks back, I played cards with a New Zealan­der, and while the con­ver­sa­tion was stim­u­lat­ing, the cards them­selves are what stuck with me.

Un­like your av­er­age Cana­dian deck, sport­ing maple leaves, hockey play­ers or myr­iad Banff ho­tels, this deck was ded­i­cated to the species of bird found in New Zealand and nowhere else.

One card in par­tic­u­lar in­tro­duced me to the kiwi; a fam­ily of flight­less birds like feath­ery spheres bal­anced on the legs of a turkey with a long, nar­row bill jut­ting from their small faces. Dur­ing our game, this awk­ward and adorable bird en­tranced me from the far side of the planet.

New Zealand was, at one time, a par­adise of bio­di­ver­sity and played host to ecosys­tems which evolved in the com­plete ab­sence of con­ti­nen­tal mam­mals, with the ex­cep­tion of some bats.

Here arose species unique to the world, like the nine-foot-tall di­nor­nis gi­gan­teus, an ostrich-like crea­ture weigh­ing 330 pounds. The hum­ble kiwi, of course, oc­cu­pied the other end of the spec­trum.

Be­cause these birds were free from ground pre­da­tion and ever watch­ful for ea­gles and har­ri­ers above, they evolved to stay low rather than fly high.

But humanity, in its ef­forts of cease­less ex­pan­sion, vi­o­lated the pro­tec­tive kilo­me­tres of ocean sur­round­ing New Zealand in the 1200s.

First came the Maori, the coun­try’s orig­i­nal set­tlers, who promptly hunted the di­nor­nis gi­gan­teus and oth­ers to ex­tinc­tion and the in­va­sive rats they brought from the main­land be­gan a preda­tory con­quest of New Zealand’s flight­less birds.

In time, with the set­tle­ment of Euro­peans, came a suite of other in­vaders such as the stoat, fer­ret, weasel, cat and pos­sum, among oth­ers.

While the de­struc­tive powers of humanity hav­ing been tem­pered in re­cent decades by a mod­ern con­ser­va­tion ethic — al­low­ing for the res­cue of at-risk species and world-class le­gal pro­tec­tion for some of the coun­try’s nat­u­ral spa­ces — these in­va­sive preda­tors con­tin­ued their ram­page.

Of the 89 species of bird known to be unique to New Zealand, only 53 re­mained as of 2001 and a great many of these were in de­cline, like the hum­ble kiwi.

In the con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity, in­va­sive species are of­ten re­garded as an in­tractable prob­lem

How do you go about erad­i­cat­ing a plant or in­sect which re­pro­duces more quickly than can be de­stroyed and spreads with im­punity on the wind or in some­one’s trunk?

The in­va­sive mam­mals de­vour­ing New Zealand are nu­mer­ous, wide­spread, di­verse and elu­sive.

Most pro­fes­sion­als I speak with on this topic in At­lantic Canada shake their heads, know­ing the bud­get and po­lit­i­cal will doesn’t ex­ist to erad­i­cate them whole­sale. Most ini­tia­tives focus on con­tain­ing the spread or man­ag­ing the at-risk species fall­ing vic­tim to the tide.

New Zealand did some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. In­stead of ac­cept­ing these in­vaders as the new or­der, they launched Preda­tor

Free 2050, build­ing on sim­i­lar, smaller projects across the coun­try.

Its goal is to erad­i­cate stoats, rats and pos­sums from the main­land by 2050, a chore al­ready ac­com­plished on more than 100 of their coastal is­lands. This is be­ing achieved by a na­tion­wide trap­ping ef­fort, ac­com­pa­nied by con­tro­ver­sial, yet ef­fec­tive, pes­ti­cide treat­ments of their re­mote wilder­ness.

This chem­i­cal, known as 1080, af­fects mam­mals only and breaks down harm­lessly in time. With­out con­demn­ing or con­don­ing this prac­tise per­son­ally, I will say that no solution to in­va­sive species is per­fect or en­tirely be­nign and that once the dust set­tles on a re­stored ecosys­tem, the ends may have jus­ti­fied the means.

And fi­nally, there is enor­mous in­vest­ment in new in­va­sive con­trol tech­niques and tech­nol­ogy gen­er­ally.

These ef­forts have been paired with con­certed con­ser­va­tion of na­tive birds. In par­tic­u­lar, I watch the rowi, the rarest of the five kiwi species, which num­bered a mere 450 in 2014, in its only re­main­ing nat­u­ral habitat. Of the 80 eggs lain by these rowi each sea­son, only two hatched to reach adult­hood, in large part do to pre­da­tion.

With the in­va­sives held back, how­ever, and hatch­ing of eggs in cap­tiv­ity, 50 rowi are now able to reach ma­tu­rity each year. In ad­di­tion to these ef­forts in their na­tive range, refuge pop­u­la­tions of rowi have been es­tab­lished on coastal is­lands free from in­va­sive preda­tors, a backup plan, if the worst should hap­pen.

The ac­tions be­ing taken in New Zealand and the meth­ods they’re con­tin­u­ing to de­velop, show un­prece­dented fore­sight and courage in ad­dress­ing the scourge of in­va­sive species.

The lessons learned in this ef­fort could one day be ap­plied here in At­lantic Canada or some day, scaled to con­ti­nents them­selves.

They are al­ready al­low­ing sev­eral species of kiwi to re­cover and in time, could save count­less more abroad.

The Ro­hit

A North Is­land Brown kiwi at Rain­bow Springs Na­ture Park, Ro­torua, New Zealand.

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