The tide began to turn for kākāpō in the early 1950s, following the creation of the New Zealand
Wildlife Service – a government agency charged with caring for New Zealand’s wildlife.
From 1949-73, the Wildlife Service made more than 60 expeditions to find kākāpō, focusing mainly on Fiordland. Six were caught, but all were males and all but one died within a few months in captivity.
By the early 1970s, the situation had become critical. A new initiative was launched in 1974 at which time no birds were known to exist. By 1977, 18 males had been found in Fiordland but with no females known to exist, the species seemed doomed.
The turning point came later the same year, when a population of about 200 kākāpō was found living in southern Stewart Island – an island free from stoats, ferrets and weasels. That discovery breathed new life into the kākāpō programme after it was confirmed the population included female birds.
However, even these kākāpō were in rapid decline, due to predation by feral cats, and so in 1987 the decision was made to evacuate the surviving population to offshore island sanctuaries.
There, free from predators, the Stewart Island birds have been the foundation point for all subsequent work in managing the species by the Wildlife Service and – since 1987 – by its replacement: the Department of Conservation.
Also translocated to the islands were five Fiordland male kākāpō. Richard Henry – found and captured there in 1975 – was the last surviving kākāpō from Fiordland. He died in December 2010
But, even safe from cat and stoat attack on the islands, breeding success was hard to achieve, as it became apparent that rats were a major predator of newly hatched kākāpō chicks. At this rate, kākāpō could not produce sufficient chicks to off-set adult mortality without further assistance.
In fact, by 1995, although at least 12 chicks had been produced on the islands, only three had survived and the kākāpō population had slumped to 51 birds.
This critical situation prompted an urgent review of kākāpō management in New Zealand, and led to the formation of a National Kākāpō Team, a new ten-year Kākāpō Recovery Plan, increased funding and staffing and a specialist advisory group called the Kākāpō Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.
After the first five years of the plan, the population recovery was on target. By 2000, five new females had been produced, there had been 13 breeding attempts, and the total population had increased to 62 birds.
In total, this means there had been a 68% increase in the kākāpō population from 1995 to 2003. That progress has given the Kākāpō Recovery Programme a cautious optimism that it is on the right track and, with continued support, can guarantee a future for one of the world’s most remarkable birds.
Currently the kākāpō population is just less than 160 birds.