“It isn’t easy to sight them in the forests,” Terry James tells me with a straight face. The 63-year-old was my chauffeur in Auckland on my 10-day trip to New Zealand in April this year. His revelation surprises me. How could the bird — the very national identity of New Zealand — not be easily spotted in the jungle? The New Zealanders are even referred to as Kiwis! And so, I head to Rotorua — a town in the North Island of New Zealand and a 45-minute flight away from Auckland — not to soak in its famed geothermal springs, but in search of answers.
In the evergreen forests of Mamaku plateau in Rotorua, I go zip lining amid ancient trees like the Rimu, Tawa and Miro, and, monster tree ferns, with Rotorua Canopy Tours (they charge 149 NZD for an adult, 119 NZD for a child and 499 NZD for a family — two adults and two children). As we walk through the forest trail, our guide Rebecca says, “Did you know that New Zealand originally didn’t have any mammals, except for bats and marine mammals, and that they were introduced by humans?” This was another shocker for me. The fact is the Maoris (Polynesian tribe) were the first humans to settle in the country a thousand years ago. The country had a flourishing population of birds like the flightless moa, which was huge and weighed around 250 kg, and the world’s largest eagle — Haast’s eagle. Within the space of a few centuries, though, the moa and the eagle were wiped off by the Maoris.
The Maoris also hunted the kiwis for meat and its feathers. The hair-like feathers of the te manu huna a tane or the hidden bird of Tane, as the kiwi was called by the Maoris, was used to make the kahu kiwi or the Maori cloaks that were woven into flax-made costumes. A few centuries later, when the Europeans arrived, they introduced rabbits as a food source since only birds were found on the island. When their numbers grew disproportionately, stoats were brought in to control the rabbit population. Soon rats, possums from Australia, ferrets, dogs and cats were found multiplying in the country, too, thus wreaking havoc on the native species of New Zealand. Actually, the agile and vicious stoats hunt kiwis not for survival but for pure sport and are the number one killers of kiwi chicks. The chicks only have a five per cent chance of reaching the breeding age due to these predators. Today, there are about 68,000 kiwis in New Zealand with a two per cent annual death rate for unmanaged kiwis — whose habitat lies beyond the control of any park authorities.
However, over the last few decades the kiwi, along with a few other surviving native species, has gained focus with regards to conservation. Government and many private organisations are doing their best to save them. At the Rotorua Canopy Tours, the focus is not just on adventure but on creating a pest-free environment for the kiwis inside the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve — where the tour takes place — through the Canopy Conservation Trust. The Trust, set up in 2015, is a joint-initiative between Rotorua Canopy Tours and the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The Trust team has since been laying out self-resetting traps to eradicate pests such as rats and possums — in an effort to create an environment that can help reintroduce the kiwis in the reserve. They have managed to trap 9,510 pests this year, says Rebecca.
After an exhilarating three-hour experience of ziplining and walking through the forest, I make my way to the Rainbow Springs Nature Park in Rotorua next — just about 500 metres from the Rotorua Canopy Tours office. This park has numerous wildlife, like the tuatara and rainbow trouts. But I was more interested in their kiwi conservation programme. There are five different kinds of kiwis — great spotted kiwi or Roroa, little spotted kiwi, Rowi, Tokoeka and the brown kiwi. And, at Rainbow Springs, the staff is involved in the hatching and management of the brown kiwis.
According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation website, the number of brown kiwis is steadily declining at the rate of two to three per cent a year, and, without a managed programme, they would be extinct by the next two generations. The team at Rainbow Springs monitors the male kiwis in the wild and when the eggs are partially incubated (male kiwis are responsible for the incubation), they are brought to the park and artificially incubated. After the hatching, the chicks are managed in-house by the team until they weigh about 1 kg, which is when they are deemed fit to be released into the wild. Till date, 1,785 kiwis have been released in the wild by the team at Rainbow Springs Nature Park.
As I watch kiwis scampering around in the park, I just hope that on my next trip to New Zealand, I would be able to watch them in the wild, too.