The distinctive musty odour of kākāpō wafts through the forest as tangata whenua (literally, people of the land) softly chant to welcome back this parrot to Hauturu – Little Barrier Island. The bird tentatively pokes her head out of her travelling cage and then scuttles a short distance into the dense undergrowth, pausing to check her new surroundings. My eyes brim, unexpectedly moved by the connection of this bird to local Māori, and a very special island. It is inspiring to be part of another step forward to securing the future of kākāpō.
By 1995, only 51, mostly adult male kākāpō survived. Previous decades had documented a continual decline in numbers, despite relocating the remaining population to offshore, mammalian predator-free sanctuaries. And then the tide turned. Intensive research and management resulted in successful breeding – as of July 2015 the population stands at 125, a healthy mix of males, females, juveniles and adults. Still critically endangered, but now the challenge is not just making more birds, but where to put the growing population.
Apart from being amazing birds, kākāpō are distinctive in conservation circles because of the positive message they convey. Depressingly often, conservation equates with bad news stories – harbingers of doom. Yet we know people are happiness seekers; so coupling a positive framework with conservation is far more effective in engaging people than negative stories. The conservation benefit of the kākāpō programme is invaluable for this reason alone. So when we come to prioritising how we allocate scarce conservation funding, I argue that this benefit is a critical consideration.
Recent research by Bennett et al. 2015 develops a prioritisation protocol to maximise biodiversity gains using private sponsorship of single ‘flagship’ species conservation programmes.
Their protocol estimates cost effectiveness using evolutionary distinctiveness, the benefit to species survival, probability of project success and project cost. The authors highlight the Kākāpō Recovery Programme as an extreme example of potential inefficiencies in using private sponsorship funding. Although an objective way of allocating funding is a great step forward, I think it is important not to ignore the social context of conservation. The iconic status of kākāpō, their importance to Māori, and the captivation of people around the world by these awesome birds are all part of the equation. Including the benefit of an internationally acclaimed good news story such as kākāpō is critical in assessing the true cost effectiveness of programmes.
Kākāpō breathe hope into conservation.
Jacqueline Beggs is an Associate Professor in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity. She is privileged to have been a member of the Kākāpo Recovery Group for the last 15 years.