From ‘functionally extinct’ to thriving: how the South Island kākā made a comeback

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A female kākā in Abel Tasman National Park.
Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Conservationists celebrate the success of a wild kākā breeding program at the top of the South Island.

Ten years ago, less than a handful of wood parrots roamed Abel Tasman, our smallest but most visited national park.

A number of wild kākā chicks will be fledging every day this season – that success is due to the hard work of several organizations working together to bring back bird life.

Project Janszoon director Bruce Vander Lee said that when the organization was founded in 2012, there were less than a handful of male kākā in the park.

“We call it functionally extinct. There were only males left, and the reason populations with predators often have only males left is because the females are killed in the nest holes, so you can see what would happen to this bird — if a ermine would climb into that hole, she has nowhere to go.”

Project Janszoon is a privately funded trust working to reverse the ecological decline in Abel Tasman National Park, working closely with the Department of Conservation, tour operators, volunteers and iwi.

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Female kāka were reintroduced to the park in 2015, after a survey two years earlier found only four wild males.

Since then, 35 captive-reared kākā have been released into the park, the latest in 2019.

Six nests have been identified in Bark Bay this season and one – visible from the coast road – has been dubbed the “Beach Nest” due to its proximity to the sea.

Project Janszoon director Bruce Vander Lee.

Project Janszoon director Bruce Vander Lee.
Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

It is the first time that this particular bird breeds. The female kākā hatched from an egg retrieved from the Wangapeka in 2018, was bred in captivity and released to the park in 2019. She has now raised two chicks, which will soon leave the nest.

Vander Lee said there were now thought to be between 30 and 40 kākā in the park and they had become a common sight and sound along the coast at Bark Bay.

The return of the wood parrot to the coast of Abel Tasman is just one of Project Janszoon’s success stories over the past decade.

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The foundation has just been in existence for 10 years. It was the first location chosen by the NEXT Foundation, founded by philanthropists Neal and Annette Plowman.

Project Janszoon is also underway to clear wild pines, control coastal weeds and test new trapping technology, in addition to protecting native carnivorous snails and moving hundreds of pāteke, or brown teal, to the park.

“One of our main measures of success is seeing our forest birds increase in their distribution. What we knew when we started was that they were restricted to a very high elevation area with lower numbers of rats, but we wanted to see them expand to the rest of the park,” said Vander Lee.

That change was also due to the extensive trapping networks that cover most of the national park.

The Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust was established in 2007 as a way for tour operators to contribute to predator control and other biodiversity initiatives.

Trust coordinator Abby McCall said commercial operators paid a Birdsong Levy for every customer they brought into the park.

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“The first trap line started from Mārahau. Think it was 83 traps to start with and it’s sort of turned into controlling predators along the shoreline and doing quite a large bird food source restoration project.”

More than a hundred volunteers check the trap lines every two weeks, and McCall said since the trust was established, bird life in the park had increased significantly.

Roy Grose, director of operations for the Department of Conservation in the north of the South Island, said the partnerships show how a collaborative approach to conservation can improve biodiversity.

“The Abel Tasman has been a great example of working together and then being able to show the biodiversity gains in a tangible way.

“When you see dead pines on the horizon and you notice the amount of birdsong, you see kākā chicks, that’s all the result of a huge amount of behind-the-scenes effort working together on predator control to save the lives of birds, lizards, insects and all that biodiversity that matters.”

Grose said the ecological gain in the park was an investment in the future for all New Zealanders.

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