From crisis conservation to salvation: the takahē story

A takahe keeping watch on its eggs. PHOTO: DOC
A takahe keeping watch on its eggs. PHOTO: DOC
The weirdly wonderful takahē is a success story, Bill Lee writes.

Dr Geoffrey Orbell’s rediscovery of takahē on November 20 1948, was an ornithological highlight of the 20th century and the conservation efforts that followed have been equally remarkable.

Recently, the Department of Conservation celebrated 75 years since the rediscovery of the takahē in Fiordland with a gathering in Te Anau of representatives of the Orbell family, former and current Doc staff, researchers, representatives of community groups and current sponsors Fulton Hogan.

It was a time of reminiscence, tall stories, reflection, and an update on the status of the birds. For attendees, we were there to acknowledge the considerable efforts, persistence, innovation, and collaboration of many groups through the decades in securing the takahē as a species in our longest running recovery programme.

The takahē is an extraordinary and weirdly wonderful bird, an endemic species, the largest rail, flightless, a grassland specialist, living in lowland to alpine environments. It’s a picky feeder (young tussock grass leaves, seeds and fern rhizomes), long lived, territorial, slightly clumsy, and much more, all described in Alison Ballance’s recent book Takahē: The Bird of Dreams.

The birds persist in the Murchison Mountains, Fiordland National Park, but are now found across New Zealand in many eco-sanctuaries and on several offshore islands.

Start-up populations have also been established in Kahurangi National Park and most recently in the Greenstone Valley. Takahē now number more than 500, improving the species conservation threat category from nationally critical to nationally endangered.

Takahē conservation efforts have pioneered the development of population recruitment research, species recovery plans, disease protocols, and translocation strategies to maintain genetic diversity. Along the way, there have been challenges associated with captive breeding, radio-tracking birds, obtaining reliable population census data, and finding suitable safe sites for new populations.

Much of the success of the programme is due to staff from the Wildlife Service, Department of Internal Affairs, followed by Doc, which has provided funding to support takahē conservation over many decades.

A feature of the Takahē Recovery Programme has been the long partnerships with Te Rūnanga Ngāi Tahu who are involved in the recovery plans, translocations and managing the birds. Community groups are also extensively engaged with eco-sanctuary management, caring for the birds, and facilitating public access. In addition, commercial partnerships are providing essential resources for aspects of the programme.

Crucial to saving the takahē and assisting conservation options has been the specialist captive breeding and rearing centre at Burwood, established in 1985. The unit maximises egg production and in the last decade has provided between 20-30 juveniles annually for distribution elsewhere. Nowadays, artificial aids have been supplanted by the "takahē teaching takahē" approach. Experienced pairs provide eggs, incubation, and some foster juvenile training in Fern Rhizome Grubbing 101. Captive bred and reared birds have been critical for saving the Fiordland population, especially when in recent decades intense tussock and beech mast events boost stoat numbers that overwhelm the predator trapping network. The centre has also provided new birds for the island populations and for release in eco-sanctuaries.

The centre has been the hub for keeping families apart across sites to control inbreeding, which reduces the population’s ability to cope with environmental change. Using new genomic techniques, the takahē whakapapa can now be managed during bird translocations to limit contact between closely related birds to improve collective genetic diversity.

Although the species is likely secure, the present conservation challenge is to find safe, suitable habitat for several self-sustaining populations of takahē, including the Murchison Mountains. Most islands and eco-sanctuaries are too small to have viable populations, and this has prompted releases of birds to the Gouland Downs, Kahurangi National Park, and more recently in the Greenstone Valley.

However, at none of these mainland sites are takahē secure without regularly maintained, intensive predator control which will need to endure for the long-term survival of the birds.

For vulnerable ground birds such as takahē it is becoming clear from both the Murchison Mountains experience and attempts to establish populations elsewhere on the mainland, that the strategy of predator-free areas is essential for securing viable populations of these remarkable birds in habitats where they can thrive.

This must be a primary goal as we approach the centennial anniversary of the rediscovery if we are to ever celebrate the full security of the takahē.

 - Bill Lee is a conservation ecologist based in Dunedin and was involved with the takahē programme from 1976–2014.