Kākāpō: Back from the Brink

 Lyndsay Walsh

The fall, and subsequent rise, of the kākāpō.

Some say it can live for up to 120 years, others describe its feathers as smelling like ‘the inside of a violin case’ – the kākāpō is a mysterious bird which has captured the heart of many but the past century has seen its numbers plummet to a point where it was once presumed extinct.

The word kākāpō means ‘night parrot’ in Māori and this serves as a fitting description for the nocturnal, flightless parrot that hails from New Zealand. The kākāpō is quite large, weighing up to 3.5 kg, and although it cannot fly it still has sizeable wings which are thought to help break its fall as it jumps through the trees. It was once found all over the mainland and surrounding islands of New Zealand but has now been marooned to just three remote islands off the coast. Codfish Island contains the last stronghold of the breeding kākāpō population and can only be accessed by scientists and authorised personnel.

New Zealand is an amazing landmass, separated from the rest of the world and up until the first human settlers arrived there were no land mammals – the only mammals were three species of bat. The kākāpō flourished prior to human settlement, with its only predators being large raptors such as giant eagles.


Humans came to New Zealand roughly 700 years ago. With its beautiful feathers, large size and fearless nature the settlers found it easy to hunt kākāpō for meat and for fashion. This certainly contributed to a decline in their numbers but the nail in the coffin for kākāpōs was the introduction of mammalian predators such as stoats, weasels and ferrets when Europeans came to New Zealand 150 years ago.

The kākāpō’s methods to avoid predation are to stay very still and let its green feathers camouflage it from aerial predators – while these methods served it well for a time they are fairly ineffective against predators such as weasels and dogs. Within a short period of time kākāpō numbers were dangerously low.

A kákápó on Codfish Island. Image source


For a time, kākāpō were missing and presumed extinct. This was until a search team came to the Fiordland region of New Zealand and found 14 males. Later in this decade another glimmer of hope appeared for the species when a breeding population was found nearby on Stewart Island. While there were no mustelids on Stewart Island, feral cats had begun to kill off the remaining kākāpō population and so a decision was made to transfer the Stewart Island kākāpōs to predator free areas.

65 kākāpō were transferred to predator free islands between 1982 and 1997, however there were mortalities along the way and by 1995 the world kākāpō population was estimated at just 51 individuals.

It became clear that Kakapos would need assistance if they were to recover their numbers and a kākāpō Recovery plan was developed in 1989.

Today kākāpō are found on 3 islands – Codfish, Stewart and Little Barrier.


Kakapo Recovery Plan

Under the plan a ‘kākāpō Recovery Group’ was established to oversee the conservation of the kākāpō. One of the main efforts of the group was to manage major projects to eradicate rats and stoats on Codfish Island and Anchor Island, respectively. The creation of predator free islands is essential for the reproduction and survival of kākāpō.

Map of Stewart and Codfish Island.


The current goal of the kākāpō Recovery Plan is to have at least 150 adult female kākāpō, and ultimately to reintroduce kākāpō to the mainland.

On Codfish Island many precautions are taken to protect and constantly monitor the kākāpō. All adults are tagged with radio transmitters and if a female is known to have laid an egg, or a chick has hatched, a camera is set up to monitor nest activity and to help ensure the survival of the chick. Mortality is naturally low in adult kākāpō but high in chicks and so many chicks end up being hand reared.

The most famous kākāpō is Sirocco, New Zealand’s Ambassador for Conservation, who was hand reared and imprinted on a human and so spends much of his time in human company. However, this was not the intention of the programme and precautions are now taken to ensure that the kākāpō chicks are not humanised.

Sirocco with his fans. Image source

Kakapo females choose to breed when the rimu fruit is in a mast year, and are supplemented with foods such as almonds and apples by scientists – which increases breeding success.

In the past decade, scientists have begun to take semen and store it in vitro to maintain genetic diversity in kakapo populations. Currently there are only three kākāpō with DNA from the Fiordland and so the programme is making great efforts to pass on their genes.


Mother and chick. Image source

The kākāpō Today

Now classified by the IUCN as critically endangered, the recovery of the kākāpō has seen many ups and downs along its way and its current success is ultimately a testament of human persistence to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. Even so, the kākāpō is still far from safe.

Where once kākāpō roamed the mainland of New Zealand in large numbers, the current population consists of 59 female and 64 male adults. That is all. Each one has been given a name, a dark reminder of how few are left. However, much progress has been made since those few kākāpō were discovered in the 1970’s and with continued dedication it looks like these bemusing creatures might just get their mauri (life force) back.

* Feature image drawn by the author. 



‘The Unnatural History of the Kakapo’ a film that can be found on http://www.elwin.co.nz/

‘Last Chance to See’ BBC Two.




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