Kākāpō – the power of positive

Posted by Jacqueline Beggs @JacquelineBeggs

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.

Kākāpō are a large, flightless nocturnal parrot, found only in New Zealand.  They have their own facebook page and crowd-funding campaign which contributes to the recovery of this species.

Kākāpō are a large, flightless nocturnal parrot, found only in New Zealand. They have their own facebook page and crowd-funding campaign which contributes to the recovery of this species. Photo: Jacqueline Beggs

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.

Jacqueline Beggs assists with the regular health check of one of the kākāpō on Whenua Hou. Photo: Darryl Eason

Jacqueline assists with the regular health check of one of the kākāpō on Whenua Hou. Photo: Darryl Eason

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.

An Experimental Mouse Invasion

Posted by Helen Nathan

New research by Helen Nathan, Mick Clout, Jamie MacKay, Elaine Murphy, James Russell

IMG_3884How much damage could a couple of mice do on a pest-free island? We used a novel experimental approach to demonstrate the importance of island biosecurity.

Two house mice (one male, one female) were released onto Te Haupa (Saddle) Island, a Department of Conservation scenic reserve which had previously hosted a mouse population, but had recently been declared pest-free. For the following 8 months we returned regularly to the island to undertake live trapping, allowing us to estimate the number of individual mice on the island, and plot the growth of the invasive population over time. We also took genetic samples from captured mice to confirm descent from the two founder individuals released. After 8 months, the experiment concluded and the population was eradicated using a combination of trapping and poison.


Ear-punches were used to mark mice for identification and to provide a genetic sample

We found that population growth was initially rapid, peaking at an estimated 68 individuals 5 months after the release, then stabilising until the end of the 8 month experimental period. This pattern of growth reflects the classic model predicted by invasion biologists, but rarely observed in real-time as, in contrast to our study, the exact point in time when an invasion occurred is usually unknown. A surprise result from our genetic analysis showed that not all of the mice trapped at the end of our experiment were descended from the founding male and female. An unrelated female was first captured 3 months after the start of the invasion, and had produced offspring 1 month later. Genetic analysis suggests that this mouse most likely originated from another island off the north-east coast of New Zealand, almost certainly transported on a boat which had recently visited other nearby islands.

The extremely rapid population growth of the invading mouse population, along with the independent mouse incursion we detected, demonstrate the need for vigilant monitoring of our pest-free sanctuaries. For successful conservation and restoration of sites, invasive species populations must be detected early during colonisation to enable swift elimination, before the population becomes established.

Read the published research online now at Population Ecology http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10144-015-0477-2

Or in the New Zealand Herald  http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11399803

Helen Nathan is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity