History holds key to kea's demise

A kea snacks on tidbits at the Remarkables ski resort. Photos: ODT files.
A kea snacks on tidbits at the Remarkables ski resort. Photos: ODT files.
Deer recovery in 1963.
Deer recovery in 1963.

Answers are available when it comes to addressing the demise of the kea and other indigenous fauna, writes Gerrard Eckhoff.

There are occasions where something which is acutely obvious to one sector is subject to in-depth studies, copious reports, historical comparisons and significant scholarship by another sector.

Question: how many endangered fauna perish unnecessarily through starvation whereas our commercial animals luxuriate with a rural version of meals on wheels (tractor and trailer) delivered to the paddock daily?

Kea (by way of contrast) find food supply scarce during hash alpine winters. The Kakapo is another example of a critically endangered species and only breeds well during the mast-fruiting of the rimu tree.

In other words, food supply and nutritional value is paramount to survival. It is that most basic of concepts that is so obvious to most rural folk.

The fate, or more correctly the survival, of the kea, our much-treasured alpine parrot was recently the subject of a weekend seminar and article (ODT, Regions, 29.4.17). The kea is apparently destined to depart this mortal coil as about 25 other New Zealand bird species have done since the late 1800s.

This unfortunate state of affairs is due in large measure to predation by introduced mustelids such as the stoat and ferret. These unrelenting carnivorous killers (which rather interestingly are related to the sea otter) seek out the ground-nesting birds (kea/kakapo) along with their staple diet of rabbit, which makes dining al fresco a breeze for them and also explains why stoat numbers are not overly threatened by 1080 poison.

The opposite is, however, the case for our indigenous bird life, especially in winter as their food source disappears under snow and frost-covered ground.

Supplementary feeding during winter especially is well known to all involved in the breeding of commercial livestock for hundreds of years. Without adequate reserves of root crops/baleage/hay/grain, even domesticated livestock would not survive the rigours of winter. Reproduction plunges because of poor body weight and so the ever-decreasing circle of survival continues unabated.

Apparently human activity is also right up there as a cause of low numbers as the kea is fed on the remains of a skier's packed lunch, which contains all the wrong foods - for kea. The skiers aren't going away and neither are the keas (yet) - so long as a free lunch is on offer.

The main reason, however, for the explosion in kea numbers some years ago (and now their gradual depletion) appears to be completely overlooked by those determined to save this iconic species.

Enter the deer-recovery operations of a couple of decades or so ago. Vast numbers of feral deer were shot from helicopters and gutted at a given spot high up in the mountains which is the kea's natural domain, far away from the skifield and the remains of a peanut butter sandwich.

The depository of deer offal courtesy of the helicopter deer-recovery operations provided a vast supply of nutrients to the kea which feasted on nutrient-rich protein from deer livers, kidney and body fat etc. Result? The kea population increased exponentially, which was noted by the helicopter pilots and their shooters who saw flocks of kea following them to the area where the deer were gutted before being carried to the coolstores far below.

The kea's survival is based around supplementary feeding in the right place with the right food at the right time - as a short-term measure. Their ultimate survival is all about 23-year-old gene technology devised by Otago University professor John Knight and New Zealander Rob Knight, of the University of California San Diego, who are yet to be allowed the privilege of saving the kea and kakapo et al from extinction by ensuring the demise of the predators. Was that technology even discussed at the recent ''Kea Konference''?

The real question therefore is not whether or how, but why not, when answers are available. The reason for the ultimate demise of our indigenous fauna is the failure of environmental political leadership - at all levels. And then there are also those well-meaning folks who believe nature will always provide so long as Gaia - the god of all things environmental - is allowed to perform.

Good luck with that.

-Gerrard Eckhoff, of Central Otago, is a former Otago regional councillor.

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