‘Intrinsic to our identity’: kiwi brought back to Wellington’s wilds | Wildlife

oralong a windswept ridge line on Wellington’s south coast, above the pounding sea and in the shadows of whirring wind turbines, 11 kiwi – New Zealand’s treasured national bird – are making themselves at home for the first time in generations.

The unique flightless birds have been busy in the week since their arrival. They have each moved out of their temporary human-made homes and began digging burrows into the hillsides with their strong claws. Soon they will line their dens with leaves, soft moss and feathers in preparation for their enormous alabaster-like eggs.

The kiwi, who will be monitored closely to ensure they are settling into their new habitat, are the first cohort of 250 that will be introduced to the wilds around the capital over the next six years – a huge milestone for a city that prides itself on regenerating native birdlife.

A big North Island brown kiwi is prepared for release in Wellington.
A big North Island brown kiwi is prepared for release in Wellington. Photograph: Neil Hutton

It is difficult to know exactly when kiwi disappeared from the city, but some conservationists believe they have been absent for more than 100 years. An estimated 12m kiwi once roamed the country, but introduced predators and habitat loss have driven those numbers to worrying lows – 68,000 at the last estimate. Conservation efforts are starting, slowly, to boost kiwi numbers.

The arrival of kiwi in Wellington represents years of hard work by conservationists, the establishment of the country’s largest intensive stoat trapping network, and, importantly, enthusiastic buy-in from the community, including those who would not typically be viewed as conservation allies: farmers , off-road 4WD enthusiasts and mountain bikers.

The birds’ release was an especially moving moment for the man who spearheaded the project. “You know how people say they get goose bumps? I describe it as kiwi-bumps,” says Paul Ward, a self-described bird nerd who, in 2018, put his film career to one side to establish the Capital Kiwi Project – a community conservation project dedicated to reintroducing a wild kiwi population back to the capital.

Four years later, and the $4.5m project, which receives much of its funding through Predator Free 2050 (a nationwide pest eradication plan), has ticked off its first major goal. On November 19, a ceremony took place at Mākara primary school involving 300 people from the Capital Kiwi Project, iwi (tribes), the local community, conservation enthusiasts and landowners.

Laying of stoat traps.
Paving the way for kiwi to be reintroduced involved the laying of a lot of stoat traps.
Photograph: Josiah Watson

The project’s iwi liaison and field specialist, Rawiri Walsh, who is also mana whenua – meaning his iwi has territorial rights over the wider Wellington region – says kiwi are a taonga, a treasure, and thought the ceremony felt like a celebration of life.

“Everyone just assumed Kiwis would always be here, until they weren’t – and that sense of loss was profound,” Walsh says.

The birds – gifted by Ngāti Hinewai hapū (a subtribe) – have been relocated more than 400km from the Ōtorohanga Kiwi House to the Mākara community, about 25 minutes from Wellington’s city centre. Among the feathered group is a mating pair – a 40-year-old matriarch the size of a turkey called Anahera, and her beau, Nouveau, 32 years her junior.

“When Anahera came out, she had this mesmerizing power – you could feel the hush in the crowd. Most of those people had never seen a kiwi before,” Ward says, adding that it was only right that the birds that arrived 80m years before humans, and “gifted us our name and are intrinsic to our identity”, should be returned to their home.

Keeping the chicks alive

Ward stands on the ridge line at Terawhiti station – one of the country’s oldest and largest sheep stations – pointing out the vast sweep of hilly farmland and regenerating native bush that the landowners have allowed to become kiwi habitat over the next few years. Beside him, veteran kiwi handler Peter Kirkman is picking up pings on his satellite locator from a recently released kiwi that has been tagged with a transmitter device, while his kiwi-tracking dog, C, has her nose to the ground in a frantic search.

The area Ward outlines is roughly 23,000 hectares – as big as New Zealand’s famous Abel Tasman national park. Over the past four years, a team of volunteers and the project’s staff have installed 4,500 stoat-traps across the landscape – the largest intensive stoat-trapping network of its kind in the country.

The Capital Kiwi project's Pete Kirkman (right) with Terawhiti station director Michael Grace release a kiwi into a burrow on the station.
The Capital Kiwi project’s Pete Kirkman (right) with Terawhiti station director Michael Grace release a kiwi into a burrow on the station. Photograph: Sara Tansy

Kiwi, while vulnerable to bigger predators such as dogs, are well-equipped with strong fighting claws to attack smaller pests, and the sheer size and thickness of their eggs helps to keep predators at bay. But kiwi chicks are entirely vulnerable, especially to stoats.

If there are no controls in place, stoats will eat up to 100% of chicks in their area, Ward says. The trapping network has caught 1,000 stoats since it was established – enough of a dent to keep their populations at a level where kiwi are able to thrive.

As the birds mate, the monitoring team, headed by Kirkman, will keep a close eye on the chicks hatching. “If we can show to the Department of Conservation we can get six of 20 chicks through to 10 months, it will be deemed a success,” Kirkman says. “But I think we’ll get more.”

Kiwi are remarkably resilient birds, Ward says, noting that they can make themselves at home almost anywhere as long as there is food – from the beaches, to scrubland to way up in the snowy mountains. But it is critical that the community “takes care” to make that environment as hospitable and safe as possible.

That care, or community buy-in, has been evident throughout the project, says Ward, who held countless meetings in wool sheds, village halls and cafes, where everyone they approached – from landowners, to iwi, to schools – gave a resounding ‘ yes’ to wanting kiwi back in the capital.

“There has been an incredible community shift from presuming that conservation was done by a Department of Conservation ranger in Fiordland or somewhere else, to it being something that we do in our back yards,” Ward says.

Some of the most surprising groups throwing their weight behind the projects have been mountain bikers and a 4WD drive club, who monitor 600 traps along part of the coastline, Ward says.

“They are stereotyped as petrol heads but they are actually some of our most passionate and dedicated trappers.”

‘You can have wildlife and people living together’

That broad buy-in from people is likely a significant reason why Wellington is one of the few capital cities that is successfully reversing its biodiversity loss and can boast a booming native bird population.

“I’m pretty confident that there are very few cities that are seeing that level of reversal of declines and therefore increases across so many different species,” says Stephen Hartley, the director of the center for biodiversity and restoration ecology at Victoria University of Wellington .

Hartley, and his network of colleagues across the country, have compared the ecological status of cities in New Zealand and attempted to develop a sense of the local community and council buy-in to conservation.

“Wellington is at the far extreme of having the greatest level of engagement from the council and from the community,” Hartley says, adding that there are more than 50 volunteer conservation groups out trapping and planting around the city. In a city with a population of just over 200,000, that is no small thing.

He puts much of that local interest down to 30 years of effort leading to a positive feedback loop, where the rewards of abundant native birdlife are visible in the city.

Meanwhile, the kiwi project is significant because “it demonstrates that all sorts of green spaces have potential,” he says. The scrubby farmland of Mākara would not necessarily be an obvious choice for a kiwi habitat, he says, “but you don’t need to lock native wildlife away in pristine reserves or offshore places … you can actually have wildlife and people living together”.

That is Capital Kiwi Project’s ultimate hope, Ward adds.

“Our ambition is that people will go to sleep at night hearing kiwi calling, they will see footprints on the golf course or the paths they walk with their families – and they will understand what has enabled that to happen, and to feel a sense of guardianship over them.”

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