Flocking together to protect parrot

A gathering or circus of kea. PHOTOS: GEORGIE MCATEER
A gathering or circus of kea. PHOTOS: GEORGIE MCATEER
The kea, the world’s only alpine parrot is thriving in some parts of the South Island but disappearing from other areas. Before next week’s Kea Conservation Trust summit, Kerrie Waterworth looks at the prospects for the endangered species.

In 2003 Tamsin Orr-Walker was studying captive wildlife management at university when she found there were huge gaps in information and data on kea populations.

Three years later, she and three others founded the Kea Conservation Trust to raise money for kea research and to work with community conservation groups.

"There are still major gaps in information and no accurate numbers because kea are not restricted to a small area. Their range extends from the far northwestern forests in Kahurangi National Park and Abel Tasman to the far southwestern reaches of Fiordland, and often in very difficult terrain."

Kea Conservation Trust co-founder and chairwoman Tamsin Orr-Walker comes face to face with a kea...
Kea Conservation Trust co-founder and chairwoman Tamsin Orr-Walker comes face to face with a kea on the Kepler Track. PHOTOS: GEORGIE MCATEER
It was still a case of taking "snapshots" of particular populations, extrapolating across the species range, and factoring in the different threats affecting different populations, Ms Orr-Walker said.

Kea are endemic to New Zealand's South Island, are usually found in mountain beech and lowland podocarp forests, and nest and feed on the ground.

Their biggest threats are introduced predators and lead in their habitat (such as flashings and lead-head nails, tyre weights and lead shot).

Tamsin Orr-Walker
Tamsin Orr-Walker
Department of Conservation science adviser Josh Kemp has been working with kea for 20 years and said the prospects for the birds were much better than for many other native species.

"We have got to remember that we had a bounty on kea and shot them for decades and they are still not extinct, whereas there are a lot of other species where we didn't do that and they are in a much worse position than kea."

Recent studies indicated kea populations were doing much better west of the main divide but on the east coast where there were more feral cats they were suffering.

"Kea aren't good fighters. Kiwi fight each other and will kick a stoat but parrots don't fight, even though they have this great fighting tool in their beak."

When kea were threatened they froze or hid, a strategy which dated back to a time when their only predators were avian and the birds hunting kea were doing it in the daytime by sight and not by smell, Mr kemp said.

"Stoats do eat kea eggs and chicks, so if you control the stoats in a valley and there are no feral cats then the kea population grows, but if cats come along and you

Members of the Wapiti Foundation remove flashings and lead-head nails during restoration work on...
Members of the Wapiti Foundation remove flashings and lead-head nails during restoration work on one of their six back country huts in Fiordland.
are not controlling them, then all of that good growth will be undone really, really quickly because cats will kill adult kea."

Mr Kemp attended the first Kea Conservation Trust summit two years ago and will be one of the speakers at the second summit, in Te Anau this month.

The trust had picked up a lot of the work Doc was not able to do, particularly working with community groups to remove lead from the environment.

The president of community-based recreational hunting group Fiordland Wapiti Foundation, Roy Sloan, is another speaker at the summit.

He said the foundation managed conservation and deer numbers in 150,000ha of Fiordland west of Te Anau.

Since 2004, members had removed more than 15,000 deer from the area and set up a trapping programme in five catchments in the area for whio (native blue duck) preservation.

Three years ago, the group was approached by the kea trust to undertake a citizen science programme; now, 450 hunters document sightings of kea over a 30-day period each year.

"We believe through this project we have uncovered one of the healthiest populations of kea in the country, and without that collaboration between both groups it would never have happened," Mr Sloan said.

Following the Christchurch mosques massacre in March, foundation members switched to using shotguns and ammunition non-toxic to kea.

He said "if nothing else, this project has made kea awareness front and centre and that wasn't happening at the time".

Ms Orr-Walker agreed.

"We recognise this is not about the Kea Conservation Trust, or about the Department of Conservation, or about scientists saving kea; this is about getting the communities all together to make kea conservation initiatives work.

"We can't do it in isolation. This is something that all of us have to get behind."

The trust's summit is on Saturday, November 30, and Sunday, December 1, at the Distinction Hotel Te Anau.

Workshops and brainstorming sessions will be held as well as presentations on latest kea research outcomes, threats and current mitigation measures, captive kea status and the importance of education and advocacy.

Kea Conservation Trust patron Peter Hillary

"Keas are symbolic of the Southern Alps and the raucous cry they make is really the sound of the high alps; it would be a silent, even bereft, place without them.

As a mountaineer and someone who loves our mountains the kea are an important part of the experience. 

I am honoured to be patron of the KCT and to support the work of the trust.

But even deeper than that, a society that cares for its environment and its native wildlife inhabitants is a society that has empathy for all living things and is indeed a better, more developed society.

I love kea; they are the heart and soul of the Southern Alps and they are the call of wild NZ!"

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