After a campaign to eliminate invasive predators from the capital’s surroundings, New Zealand’s beloved kiwi birds are now seen shuffling around the verdant hills of Wellington, marking their return after a century-long absence.
Had visitors come to New Zealand a millennium ago, they would have discovered a true “birdtopia” where countless feathered creatures roamed without any knowledge of mammalian predators.
The arrival of Polynesian voyagers and Europeans in the 1200s and later centuries spelled trouble for New Zealand’s native birds.
Invasive predators such as rats, mice, possums, and rabbits wreaked havoc by picking off birds, chewing through seeds and berries, and stripping trees bare.
To make matters worse, stoats introduced to kill rabbits ended up preying on wrens, thrushes, owls, and quails. The population of flightless native birds like the kakapo and kiwi plummeted.
According to the Department of Conservation, the wild kiwi population in New Zealand is currently estimated to be around 70,000.
Although the kiwi bird is a cherished national emblem, few have ever been spotted in its natural habitat.
Nonetheless, the population is on the rise once again, thanks to over 90 community initiatives across the country that are dedicated to safeguarding them.
The Capital Kiwi Project, a non-profit organization backed by government grants and private contributions, is one such initiative.
Founder and project leader Paul Ward told AFP that kiwis have had a special connection to New Zealand since the arrival of people. They are central to Maori myth and are embedded in New Zealand’s culture.
“Ever since people came to New Zealand, we have had a special connection to the kiwi.”
However, most New Zealanders have never seen a kiwi before. Ward estimates that wild kiwi last roamed the Wellington area more than a century ago.
“They are tough, resilient, adaptable, all values we think of as New Zealanders, but most of us have never seen a kiwi before.”
The bid to save them required a sustained conservation effort, including teaching dog owners to steer clear of kiwi and declaring war on stoats, the kiwi’s natural enemies prowling through the undergrowth.
According to Ward, adult kiwis can fend off stoats with their strong legs and sharp claws, but chicks are vulnerable.
To combat this, the project installed 4,500 traps over an area of almost 43,000 football fields, successfully trapping 1,000 stoats.
With the predator population under control, the project released the first kiwis in November. The birds were transported from a captive breeding program 500 kilometers away to a Wellington school, where they were greeted with a traditional Maori ceremony.
As the first kiwi was released, a hush fell over the 400-strong crowd.
“The power of that moment was palpable. Our job is to bottle that and spread it across the hills of Wellington.”
The project has been a success so far, with regular check-ups showing that the first batch of kiwi is thriving.
“Two months after we released the birds, we were ecstatic to discover they had gained weight,” Ward said. “One had put on 400 grams—that’s a considerable weight gain even for a human over Christmas or Easter. There’s plenty of food for them on these hillsides.”
The plan is to release 250 birds over the next five years to establish a significant wild kiwi population.
The hope is that their distinctive cry will become a part of everyday life on the outskirts of the capital. Ward believes they must protect the animal that has gifted them their name, and that failure to do so would be foolish.
“It’s our duty to look after the animal that’s gifted us its name.”
From near extinction to a soaring population, the story of the kiwi bird in New Zealand is a rollercoaster of tragedy and hope.
Once plagued by the arrival of humans and invasive predators, this cherished flightless bird was almost wiped out. But after years of dedicated conservation efforts, the kiwi population is now thriving once again.
It’s a tale of perseverance and commitment, as New Zealanders work tirelessly to protect this emblematic creature. And with continued efforts, the kiwi’s distinctive cry may once again become a familiar sound in the country’s verdant hillsides.