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NZ's rare kakapo sees population boom

Rebecca Staudenmaier
August 9, 2022

The world's heaviest parrot was at risk of dying out completely, but thanks to the work of Maori tribe members and conservationists the kakapo population has now reached its highest number in over 40 years.

A kakapo pictured outside in in New Zealand
The kakapo, a nocturnal flightless parrot, is critically endangeredImage: Nature Picture Library/imago images

New Zealand's kakapo parrot population is now at its highest level in decades, the country's conservation department announced on Tuesday.

The news is a big win for conservationists, Maori tribe members and volunteers who have worked diligently for decades to ensure the survival of the world's heaviest parrot.

What did officials say?

The kakapo population rose by 25% in the last year, bringing the total to 252 birds, according to the latest figures. In 2002, there were only 86 left.

The population boom was attributed to a good breeding season, as well as several successful artificial insemination attempts. All in all, this season saw 55 chicks enter the official population.

"There is an all-hands-on-deck approach to saving kakapo," Conservation Minister Poto Williams said in a statement.

"This has been the second biggest breeding season, leading to the highest number of birds since the 1970s, but we can't take our eye off the ball," she added.

The Kakapo Recovery Program was created in 1995, and is a collaboration between the New Zealand government's conservation department and the Maori tribe, Ngai Tahu.

"Our vision for kakapo is to grow their numbers and ensure they can live freely in a natural environment," said Tane Davis, the tribe's representative to the program.

"Ngai Tahu connections to the mauri of kakapo is strengthened as the population grows," he said, using the Maori term for the life force or essence of a being, mauri.

As recently as 2002, there were only 86 kakapo in existence — now there are over 250Image: YangxLiu/Xinhua/imago images

Why is the kakapo so endangered?

The kakapo is a nocturnal, flightless bird native to New Zealand, and can live up to 90 years.

They also carry the crown of being the heaviest parrot in the world, with females weighing 1.4 kilograms (roughly 3 pounds) and males reaching 2.2 kilograms.

While they can live a long time, the bird's natural breeding cycle poses an immense challenge in efforts to save the species.

In the conservation world, giant pandas are notorious for their difficult breeding cycle, but this pales in comparison to the kakapo.

The kakapo only breed every two to four years, when local evergreen rimu trees produce enough fruit.

The birds also have very low fertility, and only 50% of eggs are normally fertilized. Inbreeding has also exacerbated problems.

What dangers do chicks face?

Chicks also face incredible hurdles to reach adulthood and are only introduced into the general population after they are 150 days old.

"The chicks generally get themselves in to high-risk situations, and occasionally need to be rescued from clumsy episodes, such as getting stuck in mud or getting their legs caught in trees," said Conservation Minister Williams.

The program relies on volunteers who keep an eye on nests and help rescue chicks in trouble.

The kakapo were once abundant throughout New Zealand. Their demise was accelerated when European settlers arrived — introducing cats, rats and stoats to the environment. The flightless bird was largely defenseless against these new predators.

Thanks to the help of the Kakapo Recovery Program and other conservation efforts, the population is beginning to recover.

Officials also plan to soon set up a livestream camera outside a nest ahead of next year's breeding season, giving "kakapo enthusiasts around the world" the chance to check out the next generation of chicks.

Seemingly extinct animals who are back from the dead

Every year many animal species go extinct, never to be seen again. But some species are rediscovered as well. While that's good news, it doesn't mean everything's just fine with the returnees.

Image: Diego Bermeo/Parque Nacional Galápagos/dpa/picture alliance

Bouvier's Red Colobus Monkey

This monkey is rated "endangered" on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The twist: Until 2015, when some of the red monkeys were seen in the Congo, the species was believed to be extinct. This is called the Romeo error ― when a species is declared extinct while it is still alive, named after the tragically mistaken lover in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Image: CC by N3ddo!/Wikipedia

Hula painted frog

Animals that return from (falsely assumed) extinction like this are so-called Lazarus species, named after the man who was risen from the dead by Jesus in the Bible. Among them: The Hula painted frog. It's endemic to the Lake Hula marshes in Israel and was thought to have gone extinct after they'd been drained. It hasn't, but it is critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List.

Image: cc-by-sa-3.0/Mickey Samuni-Blank

Fernandina giant tortoise

This species of Galapagos tortoise is also critically endangered according to the IUCN. It was considered extinct until a single female was discovered on Fernandina Island in 2019. She's estimated to be over 100 years old. Researchers discovered the species in 1906 when they found a single male animal ― which promptly died, leading to the belief the species was extinct.

Image: Diego Bermeo/Parque Nacional Galápagos/dpa/picture alliance

South Island Takahe

This critically endangered bird is only found on the South Island of New Zealand. Its North Island relative is extinct, and for a long time, it was believed the South Island one was, too. Its population had dwindled after rats, cats and dogs had been introduced to New Zealand by colonists. But in 1948, 50 years after it was declared extinct, the bird was rediscovered in an isolated valley.

Image: M. Guyt/blickwinkel/AGAM/picture alliance

Chacoan peccary

The endangered Chacoan peccary lives in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. When researchers discovered a fossil of the animal in 1930, they believed the species to be extinct. But in the 1970s, they were proven wrong. Indigenous people of the region had known the peccary was still alive, it had just taken Western researchers decades to catch up.

Image: W. Layer/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Glittering Starfrontlet

This glamorously named bird lives in high altitudes in Colombia's western Andes. For a long time, researchers only knew about its existence from a specimen in a museum and believed it to be extinct. It was rediscovered in 2004. Today its population is increasing, though it is still endangered, according to the IUCN.

Image: Luis Mazariegos/Science Advances/dpa/picture alliance

Variable Harlequin Frog

This frog species is critically endangered. In the wild, it mainly lives in Costa Rica (the image seen here is from a frog farm in Colombia), where it was rediscovered in 2003. As amazing as it is to find a Lazarus species ― researchers stress that many rediscovered species are likely to go extinct without aggressive conservation efforts. (Editor: Fabian Schmidt)

Image: Manuel Rueda
7 images

Report written in part with material from Reuters news agency.

Edited by: Mark Hallam

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