The first Polynesian settlers, the Maōri, found the kākāpō easy to catch, and hunted it for its plumage and meat. The Polynesian dog and rat, which came to New Zealand with the Maōri, also preyed on the birds and their eggs.
When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand, they found a very small landmass populated with bizarre wildlife.
Unlike all other major landmasses in the world, New Zealand had no land mammals, except for three species of bats. Instead, birds, reptiles and insects had evolved to inherit the full range of ecological opportunities available. Some birds occupied niches normally occupied by mammals.
It was a “Noah’s Ark” of fascinating evolutionary experiments. Instead of mice, New Zealand had bush wrens. Instead of giraffes or kangaroos, New Zealand had the giant moa. And instead of rabbits or possums, New Zealand had the kākāpō.
A huge flightless parrot that lumbered around the bushes in the dark, the kākāpō would have filled summer nights with the strange calls of its breeding repertoire.
By the time of European settlement, in the early 1800s, kākāpō had become confined to the central North Island and forested parts of the South Island.
European settlement greatly accelerated the kākāpō’s demise. Forest clearance, increased hunting, and the release of further introduced predators, such as cats, two further rat species and stoats, and food competitors such as possums and deer wreaked havoc on the remnant population.
By 1894, the kākāpō was in serious trouble and the Government launched its first attempt to save the species. Led by pioneer conservationist Richard Henry, several hundred kākāpō were shifted to the predator-free Resolution Island in Fiordland Unfortunately, within six years, stoats arrived on the island and destroyed the population.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the kākāpō was a lost species. Few people saw kākāpō any more, and no one actively cared for them. Only a few birds remained, limited to the most isolated parts of New Zealand.