Kea: if there is a will, there is a way to save them

Look out for trouble ... kea in Milford. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Look out for trouble ... kea in Milford. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Kea can only be saved if we humans are serious about it, Gerrard Eckhoff writes.

The recent article on the survival of the kea, (ODT 8.2.24) was a salutary read but raises more questions than it answered.

The problem with we humans is that we are at the top of the food chain. Keas are obviously not, but that should not mean they are doomed, unless of course we continue to ignore the solutions which are very apparent.

Classifying kea as a taonga may well make some folks feel good about themselves, but the kea won’t notice, nor will it achieve very much. Science and facts will, but only if we are serious about the survival of endangered species.

There is no indication that at this point in time that we are. If funding to protect the kea is increased, funding elsewhere is decreased. It’s called a trade-off, as others see more important needs for the dollar.

It is not that long ago (two decades or so) that the kea population exploded, which had absolutely nothing to do with the Department of Conservation, 1080, trappers, or being able to determine how many banded kea are killed by predators. Enter the deer-recovery industry.

In the 1970s, deer were shot and taken to high spots on a mountain for gutting. This nutrient (hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and fat, etc.) was left to dissipate over time. The kea is a very smart bird and soon discovered a massive amount of nutrient was freely available to gorge themselves on.

Flocks of them learned to follow the helicopters in very short order. As a direct consequence, mother kea raised all her chicks instead of removing one or two eggs from the nest, as she instinctively knew to do should she lack the good food source that would enable the raising of more than one chick.

The populations of kea exploded wherever deer were gutted.

But the deer carcasses then started being taken to factories for processing. When the deer culling operations effectively ended, so too did the food source, and therefore the numbers of kea — yet the toxin 1080 was blamed for this reduction.

The environmental lobby are still to understand the importance of supplementary feeding to enhance the survival chances of our all-important native bird species, whether they be kea, kiwi or kakapo.

If we are really serious about the survival of the kea, then surely, we as a society must employ science in the form of genetic engineering of the stoat. CRISPR (gene-editing) technology has existed for so long now that it must be an embarrassment to the science community not to implement the best tool in the bag.

This technology, used on stoats, would ensure that only male kits are born, thereby condemning the species to extinction, and the kea (along with other birds) to healthy populations.

Perversely, it is the environmental lobby who refuse to entertain this option to the extent that trials are not allowed in New Zealand, even in secure surroundings, to determine its value. Most of New Zealand’s GM science work is done overseas.

So it is not just about funding; it is all about science and understanding of where the answers actually lie.

As for feral cats, the same solution applies. The wonderful Australian environmentalist Dr John Walmsley of Earth Sanctuaries once said: "I really like [feral] cats, but I can only eat one a week."

— Gerrard Eckhoff is a retired Central Otago farmer and former Otago regional councillor.