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The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) is the world’s largest parrot. It is flightless and spends most of the day looking for fruit. With its slow, deliberate lifestyle, it could be described as a sloth of the bird world.

For millions of years, the kakapo lived on the forest floors of New Zealand, almost undisturbed in a land with no mammalian predators. When humans arrived, kakapo were a ready source of meat and feathers. Pressure on these birds began to mount as their habitat was steadily cleared to create gardens or burnt for the regrowth of aruhe (bracken fern) for food.

The second wave of human settlement saw Pakeha (Europeans) arrive here in large numbers. There was large-scale transformation of forests into farms. And there was demand for kakapo as museum specimens. In the mid-1800s, museums from Vienna to Iowa City had at least one specimen.

However, the really bad news for the kakapo began in 1867 when the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society introduced five ferrets. This was the beginning of an onslaught by weasels, stoats, and ferrets (collectively termed ‘mustelids’) that was to spell the demise of several bird species. In 1922, G M Thomson wrote:

‘Nothing in connection with the naturalisation of wild animals into New Zealand has caused so much heart-burning and controversy as the introduction of these bloodthirsty creatures.’ (1) Mustelids were originally introduced as ‘the natural enemy’ of rabbits. (2) They soon adapted to New Zealand conditions and prey, hastening the decline of ground-dwelling birds such as kakapo.

In the 1890s, the New Zealand Government launched its first attempt to save this near-extinct species. They set aside Resolution Island in Dusky Sound as a bird sanctuary and appointed Richard Henry as its caretaker.

Their attempt was unsuccessful, and little more was done to help the kakapo until the mid-1900s. By then, however, the species was reduced to a handful of individuals surviving in the most inaccessible reaches of the country.

By 1975, only one bird remained from the original mainland populations. This male bird was rescued from Fiordland. It was named Richard Henry to commemorate the man who had worked so hard on behalf of the kakapo.

In the 1990s, the Department of Conservation and volunteers undertook a major recovery programme. In 1995, kakapo numbers had dropped to a critically low level – only 51 individuals remained. Although numbers are still precariously low, they have been slowly increasing since the programme began. By 2005, there were 86. The kakapo Richard Henry still survives and has bred, adding his valuable mainland genes to the growing kakapo population.

3. Thomson, G M (1922). The Naturalisation of Animals and Plants in New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p70.
4. Ibid, p71.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2006)

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