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In the 1990s, the rowi was headed for extinction but last year the world’s rarest kiwi had its classification upgraded from endangered to vulnerable, due largely to a partnership between the Department of Conservation, Te Runanga o Makaawhio and Ngai Tahu and the privately owned and funded West Coast Wildlife Centre. Kerrie Waterworth reports.
Richard Benton peered through the glass window at the row of kiwi incubators and beamed like a new parent as kiwi husbandry manager Nicki van Zyl lifted a lid and revealed a wet, bloated, freshly hatched rowi kiwi chick sitting beside broken bits of eggshell.
We were in the West Coast Wildlife Centre purpose-built incubation and hatching facility and it was hard not to "coo" as we watched the chick undergo its newborn checks. Standing in our hospital theatre overshoes it reminded me of a neonatal intensive care unit as we waited for Ms van Zyl to carry the chick (close to her body "as they do jump") over to the glass window for us to have a close-up look before returning it to the incubator to dry and keep warm.
"Actually, a neonatal unit is very a good way to explain this facility," Mr Benton said.
"We want to give our birds the best chance of survival so they can eventually be rehabilitated back into the wild."
"That’s what makes us different; we are not a zoo, and that’s what makes the facility special, really."
Before humans arrived in New Zealand, rowi kiwi were widespread throughout the northern South Island and into the southern North Island, as far north as Lake Poukawa (Hawke’s Bay).
By 1995, there were only 165 ageing adult rowi and the only natural population was in a small area of coastal forest inland from Okarito, on the west coast of the South Island. Rowi had become the rarest of the five species of kiwi due to predation, mainly by stoats, and habitat loss.
Despite widespread trapping of stoats, rowi kiwi numbers were still dropping.
As a last-ditch attempt to save the rowi the Department of Conservation introduced Operation Nest Egg whereby Doc rangers removed rowi eggs from the wild, transported them to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch to hatch and after a few weeks placed the young birds in predator-free islands to grow big enough to fight off a stoat before being reintroduced into the wild. Rowi numbers improved but with local iwi preferring the eggs and chicks to remain in their region and the increased risk to the eggs by having to transport them to the east coast, Doc started looking for a private investor to fund a west coast incubation facility.
Fifty-two-year-old English-born Richard Benton had his "first taste of New Zealand conservation" after he bought the International Antarctic Centre in 2000, purchasing the business from Christchurch International Airport Ltd.
"Talking to local iwi and Doc I found out there was an opportunity to look after these penguins."
In partnership with Doc, Mr Benton created the live NZ Penguin encounter at the Antarctic centre and he became "hooked" on saving species. In 2011, Mr Benton sold the Antarctic Centre back to the original vendor and was seeking another tourist venture.
"I got talking with the Department of Conservation and the CEO of Development West Coast and we found out the world’s rarest kiwi (the rowi) was here in Franz Josef and that Doc was keen to partner up with a private investor to protect and preserve some of these kiwis."
Mr Benton bought the land and a brand new multimillion-dollar building which had been the Hukawai indoor ice climbing centre in Franz Josef and had closed a few months before. In November, the West Coast Wildlife Centre opened, the largest kiwi incubation and hatching facility in the South Island.
"It was quite tough, there was a lot of red tape to get through, but in saying that we had lots of help and advice from Doc and Kiwi Encounter at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua (the largest kiwi hatching facility in New Zealand)."
"Our first kiwi ranger, Bridget Wren, used to work at Rainbow Springs and she helped set up all the right protocols and processes to make sure we were doing it right and doing it in a leading edge kind of way."
Many adult rowi kiwi in the wild now have transmitters attached to their legs and movements indicating they are incubating an egg can be picked up by Doc’s Sky Ranger plane aerial tracking system.
On arrival, the eggs are "candled" to make sure they are healthy and placed in an incubator where they are kept warm and turned as they would be in the wild by the parents.
When they are about 80 days, the chicks start to hatch, which can take up to a week.
Kiwi chicks are born with a large egg yolk full of nutrients connected to their intestines through their navels and which they absorb for up to a week after hatching.
"The first thing we do when the chick is born is check that all the veins and egg yolk are inside and the navel sphincter is nicely closed," Ms van Zyl said.
"All our kiwis that leave us have to be swabbed, vaccinated and microchipped and it takes about a week for us to get our swabs back, so we have to be on to it quite early."
Kiwi chicks are vulnerable to bacteria such as salmonella.
When enough of the yolk sac has been absorbed to allow the baby kiwi to stand and shuffle around, the chick is moved into a "brooder box".
Moving from the incubator room to the brooder room, where 14 of the metre-long boxes were occupied, we had to change our shoes, remove any jewellery and wash our hands upon entering. Ms van Zyl opened the lid of the nearest brooder and woke Afterdinnermint to check his weight. After eating kiwi chick food (a mixture of ground ox heart, cat biscuits, fruit, peas and carrots and corn) for more than two weeks he was now 2g off his birth weight and almost ready to go to Willowbank.
"We are just waiting for Doc to arrange his transport to Hokitika airport and flight to Christchurch. All our birds fly free with Air New Zealand. It is the only time they get to fly," Ms van Zyl said, laughing.
Afterdinnermint will spend three weeks with other juvenile rowi kiwis in a pen before being transferred to predator-free islands in the Marlborough Sounds. Although some rowi kiwis have started breeding on the islands, almost all are returned to the Okarito Forest when they are big enough to fend for themselves, and the cycle begins again.
Mr Benton said Operation Nest Egg has been so successful at hatching rowi and Haast tokoeka (the world’s second-rarest kiwi) the incubation and hatching facility centre had to expand three times, but further expansion depended on Doc’s plans and "what their goals are".
"Because the species is still critical, Doc is very much committed to what we are doing."
"Hopefully, that will continue, from a business perspective, but, from a conservation perspective, as soon as they get to a 1000 adult birds in the wild they may decide to leave the eggs in the wild," Mr Benton said.
At present, without the captive breeding programme, 95% of young kiwi die within their first year. Western South Island Doc communications adviser Jose Watson said "ideally, Doc would like to move back to a more in-situ management for kiwi but the ability to leave eggs in the forest depends on a number of things, most importantly the removal of pests which prey on young kiwi."
"There is a lot happening with research and development of new trapping techniques, and trap lures, poisons and genetics but we don’t have the silver bullet yet," she said.
Mr Benton said he intended to keep building on the tourist attraction by adding more native species.
In November, he opened a tuatara encounter and he planned "to do something" around kea in the future.
"We are only on this planet for a short period of time, so it would be nice to leave it knowing you have made a bit of a difference."
Conservation status: Threatened — Nationally Vulnerable
Population: About 450 (in 2015)
Found in: Okarito Forest and surrounds in South Westland, predator-free islands of Marlborough Sounds
Unlike some other kiwi species, male and female rowi both take turns incubating their eggs.
All kiwi chicks are self-sufficient as soon as they hatch but rowi juveniles often stay with their family group for years.
Rowi are slow breeders, normally laying just one egg per year making the death of an adult bird all the more devastating to the population.
Operation Nest Egg has increased the number of birds making it to adulthood from two to about 50 per season. The aim is to increase the rowi population to 600 birds by 2018.
Doc and a private business have developed ground-breaking rowi kiwi monitoring technology.
Transmitters are attached to their legs and tell where the bird is, when an egg is laid and when a chick hatches.
The system for data collection (nicknamed Sky Ranger) means that transmitter signals, that would previously have taken 45 days of groundwork to complete, can now be gathered during a two-hour flight.