CNN Environment News

Conservationist fights to save New Zealand's national bird


May 4, 1996
Web posted at: 2:40 p.m. EDT

LAKE WAIKAREMOANA, New Zealand (CNN) -- A conservationist has established a program to save the kiwi, New Zealand's national bird, from extinction. (1.2MB QuickTime movie of kiwis being caught in the wild)

John McLennan is working hard to change the tide in favor of the kiwi through a breeding program in the forest at Lake Waikaremoana, which just 80 years ago sheltered 5,000 kiwis and now contains an estimated 200 birds.

Over the years, predators have taken a toll, and now only 1 percent of kiwi chicks survive. Fewer than a dozen birds could remain within 15 years.

Dr. McLennan

McLennan hopes to reverse this decline. "They're a remarkably special bird," he said, "nothing like them anywhere in the world. We talk about them being our national emblem, but they are biologically of international significance. They really are something very special, and for that reason I think they ought to be preserved at all costs."

McLennan has come to know his kiwis so well that he has named them: The super-dad of the breeding program, Jock, has fathered four chicks this season.

The birds have transmitters attached to their legs, enabling McLennan and his colleagues to track them over miles of bush.

Saving the long-billed bird, especially from predators, has proved to be difficult. McLennan has set traps to catch ferrets, weasels and stoats that hunt the kiwi. But his traps can only catch so many of the culprits.

"Stoats are the main reason why kiwis are declining throughout mainland forests," said McLennan.

Lake Waikaremona

At a corrugated iron hut on the edge of Lake Waikaremoana, McLennan and his team keep records of the kiwi chicks hatched over the past two years. Only a few have survived for more than three weeks.

However, this season McLennan aims to reverse a 96 percent decline in the kiwi population.


New Zealand teen-agers are rallying to the cause by volunteering with the Conservation Corps. For months they have tramped the bush-clad hills, regularly checking nearly 400 traps for kiwi catches. For many of the youngsters, the time in the wild is giving them a new perspective on life.

Finding the first chick moved the usually reserved teen-agers.

"It's the first time I've seen one in the wild. It's quite a cutie," said one teen-ager.

"It is really amazing for us to see, especially a baby one," said another.

These chicks could be the last of the line if the population decline continues. But McLennan hopes to extend his rescue operation to a dozen or more areas around the country to protect -- and preserve -- the national bird.

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