NZ Lifestyle Block

Last Words

The locals saving the song of the kōkako

- Words Cari Johnson

AS THE SUN crests the horizon at the Kaharoa Conservati­on Area, 30km northeast of Rotorua, dozens of North Island kōkako glide through the regenerati­ng canopy.

There are now more than 170 hidden in the trees, gifting trampers with their haunting songs.

But back in 1997, things were dire. The Kaharoa Conservati­on Area was part of an eight-year research study that found there were just 26 kōkako left.

The study determined pest control was critical for successful breeding, but it would take a dedicated army to bring the kōkako population back to life.

The Kaharoa Kōkako Trust was set up with the lofty goal of saving the dwindling population. Despite the dire need for further pest management, DOC had little funding.

Kaharoa locals Peter Davey and Rachel Vellinga stepped in. They drafted an agreement with DOC and rallied residents. DOC funded the traps and bait; locals provided the person power to rid the land of rats, stoats, and possums ahead of the breeding season.

Four pairs of kōkako bred successful­ly in the first year, a significan­t achievemen­t after two years without any new chicks.

“Kōkako are one of the last birds New Zealand has left that can disperse large seeds from native trees,” says trustee Laurence Kirk. “There's nothing like them in the rest of the world.”

Laurence says working with the trust over the last 20-odd years has given him an excellent excuse to enjoy the bush while aiding in its regenerati­on.

“Locals simply wanted to do something for their forest.”

The number of kōkako in Kaharoa has more than quadrupled since 1997, making it the fourth-largest relict kōkako population in NZ. It's also critical to the efforts of the national kōkako recovery programme, which translocat­es fledgeling­s to other safe havens.

In 2010, the group was named the Green Ribbon Award's supreme winner for its ongoing efforts.

“Our work may have taken 20 years, but we've proved we can bring a local population back from basically the brink,” says Laurence.

The results transcend more than the kōkako flitting around the canopy. Over the past two decades, the rugged landscape has rewarded volunteers with noticeably more native flora and fauna. Even native bat numbers (which the trust also monitors) have improved since its inception.

Laurence encourages anyone in the area to stroll along the Kaharoa Kōkako Track (2.4km return) for a chance to hear the hum of a healthy forest.

“The more people who visit, the better they will understand and perhaps be encouraged to do something similar at another forest. It's amazing to see what

■ can be achieved.”

It's now critical to the national kōkako recovery programme.

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