Welcome to the kiwi capital
Kiwis have been flocking to the sun, sand and surf of Whakatāne for decades, but we’ve only recently discovered that kiwis of the feathered variety have been calling it home for generations. And the fact that they are found so close to an urban envir
On a cool, still autumn evening in Ōhope, a high-pitched ascending whistle floats over the hills. You can hear it above the sound of the waves and the breeze in the pōhutukawa, and it’s an experience that amazingly few New Zealanders can make claim to. It’s the call of Apteryx mantelli, more commonly known as the North Island brown kiwi. There are believed to be approximately 80 living in the hills behind Ōhope beach, and around 300 in the Whakatāne area. This is remarkable because just 20 years ago they were on the verge of vanishing.
In 1999 it was estimated that there were just four breeding pairs in the area. Like everywhere else, their habitats had been affected by the encroachment of human activity, but the biggest threat came in the form of an axis of evil: stoats, ferrets and weasels. These furry little killers were imported to New Zealand in the 1880s to control rabbits and to create a fur industry, but by the turn of the century they had become established in the wild and were recognised as pests. Further imports were banned in the early 1900s, but – bizarrely – in the 1980s ferrets came back into vogue as a means to get rich quick and small farming operations sprang up; within a decade the market had collapsed, and while many did the right thing and had them euthanised, others simply released their ferrets into the wild. Numbers boomed – and New Zealand now has one of the largest feral ferret populations in the world.
The humble kiwi – and most native birds for that matter – are no match for ferrets or stoats, which are the most significant factor in the decline of kiwi populations, but a dedicated band of two-legged kiwis are doing their best to turn the tide. The Whakatāne Kiwi Trust was established in 2006 and has been waging war on stoats and ferrets and other pests, including rats, mice and possums, ever since. Kiwi Management Team Leader Bridget Palmer says that in the last 15 years the Trust and other project partners – Ngāti Awa, BOP Regional Council, Department of Conservation and Whakatāne District Council – have made great progress, but it has taken the combined efforts of a cast of thousands.
Not only are kiwi making a remarkable recovery, other species are also benefiting and it is not uncommon to watch kererū, tūī and bellbirds as you sip your latte at a café on The Strand
“At the inception of the project in 1999,” says Bridget, “the kiwi eggs were taken to Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua, incubated, hatched and cared for until they reached 1kg, which is a ‘stoat proof’ weight. This is a management tool called Operation Nest Egg (ONE) and we undertook ONE until 2010. Now we leave them to hatch in the wild. 1kg is a weight that kiwi can defend themselves from stoats, but they are still no match for vehicles, cats, dogs and ground set possum traps. This is always a challenge for us and something we endeavour to educate people about.”
The core project area is around 1000 hectares and is set up with an expansive network of traps and bait stations that volunteers maintain and it’s a recipe that has worked. Not only are kiwi making a remarkable recovery, other species are also benefiting and it is not uncommon to watch kererū, tūī and bellbirds as you sip your latte at a café on The Strand.
“The number of pests and predators caught since the trap network was set up is phenomenal,” says Bridget. “Volunteers have trapped 730 stoats, 5463 Rats and 2261 hedgehogs, to name a few. Yes, hedgehogs are a pest too.
They eat wildlife, including invertebrates, like weta, bird’s eggs and lizards. This is often a surprise for people who think they only eat the snails in their garden.”
The success of the kiwi population restoration has prompted a new community group, including some of those volunteering for the Kiwi Project, to take pest and predator control to the next level under the title of HALO Whakatāne. HALO Whakatāne chairperson Shannon Crook says, “HALO is trying to change the understanding that conservation happens in the bush environment and our urban areas are for people. In reality, wildlife does not have boundaries and we need to ensure that building a fence isn’t the only way we can protect native species in Whakatāne. So HALO’s aim is to strengthen and expand predator control efforts and build a solid community partnership with a high level of active participation in conservation delivery.” And all Kiwis can help; to find out more about HALO and the Kiwi Trust check them out online - you can sign up for a tour, or even be a trap sponsor and help keep our national bird safe.