Sunday, January 16, 2011

Saviour Of His Species

NZ's most spectacular 'on-the-brink-of-extinction' rescue was that of the Chatham Island black robin, after finding the sole surviving female to partner with the four remaining males. It doesn't get any closer than that, but the critically endangered kakapo must run a close second as an 'on the very edge' survivor.
The kakapo known as Richard Henry was the ‘elder statesman’ of the NZ kakapo population and a lynchpin to the species' future. This veteran bird (named after a pioneer NZ conservationist who first tried to save kakapo from predators more than a century ago) died of natural causes this week.
He was discovered in isolated Fiordland in 1975, and is estimated to have lived to 80! He was also the only surviving mainland bird, which means he had a crucial role to play in ensuring genetic diversity in the population.
Interestingly, his sounds were in a different 'dialect' to the Stewart Island birds. He was a beautiful big bird, with slightly different colourings to the Stewart Island kakapo – brighter green with bold yellow markings.
Fossil records indicate that in pre-Polynesian times, the Kakapo was our third most common bird. However, the population plummeted after humans arrived. Maori ate them and used their feathers for ceremonial cloaks, while rodents decimated nesting sites and forest burn-off for farms destroyed their habitat.
The kakapo is one of the most outrageously funny, loving and strangest birds in a land renowned for unusual creatures. Somehow it's hung on: with no known females, it was effectively extinct for ¾ of the 20th century, and dangerously close to extinction during the last ¼ century. For three decades, kakapo have been helped by DOC's most extensive protected breeding programme, which has increased the population from the low point of 51 birds to 121.
Like the story of the Chatham Island black robin and the phenomenal little bird calledOld Blue, the story of the kakapo's salvation will prominently feature the parrot Richard Henry.

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