Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

The battle for our bird: 100,000 kiwi by 2030

The Department of Conservation has launched new plans to boost kiwi numbers to 100,000 by 2030. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Department of Conservation has launched new plans to boost kiwi numbers to 100,000 by 2030. Photo / Alan Gibson

One hundred thousand kiwi could be scratching around our bush by 2030, under plans unveiled by the Government today.

The Department of Conservation's Kiwi Recovery Plan 2017-2027, launched this morning, aims to reach the ambitious milestone by turning the two per cent annual loss rate of our national bird into a two per cent annual increase.

Backed by a new $3.6 million research programme, the DOC strategy further aspires to restore the national distribution of all species of kiwi and maintain their genetic diversity.

"This strategy focuses on growing the wild kiwi population and building on the work achieved under previous strategies, rather than steadying or managing decline," Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said.

"This Government is not prepared to accept that our national bird is at any ongoing risk of potentially becoming extinct in their natural habitat."

Today, only an estimated 68,000 kiwi remain in a country once home to millions; researchers estimate that the population stood at around 100,000 when it first became apparent, several decades ago, that our bird was on a fast-track to extinction.

Some species remain more threatened than others, but emergency conservation efforts have helped pull the most endangered - including rowi and Haast tokoeka, now both numbering in their hundreds - back from the brink.

By 2030, DOC wants species populations rebuilt to 35,400 brown kiwi, 35,000 tokoeka, 2,900 little spotted kiwi, 19,900 great spotted kiwi and 900 rowi.

The cost of the work, estimated at a further $1.6 million than what's spent annually, would be mostly met by an $11.2 million bag of rescue money included in last year's Budget, with an annual shortfall of $1.3 million raised primarily by national charity Kiwis for Kiwi.

The plan would be helped by wider efforts working towards the Government's goal of zero predators by 2050, coming with a separate investment of $28 million, with around 100 communuity conservation groups playing a role alongside large-scale pest control operations.

Read more: Why New Zealand is losing the kiwi

But it wasn't just possums, stoats and rats that threatened the kiwi and the strategy pointed to the need to educate owners of dogs, whose attacks could quickly set back years of conservation work.

Kiwis for Kiwi executive director said the DOC recovery plan was the first to assess the sustainability of current efforts - and to look beyond simply slowing or halting kiwi decline to actual growth.

"We still have a lot of work to do, and it's not an insignificant goal that has been set, but it is achievable - that's a very powerful message to take to the New Zealand public.

"For those working hard on the ground, for those who donate time and money, for the corporate sponsors, and the volunteers, this is a huge recognition of the difference they've made, and great incentive to continue the good work."

Top NZ scientists to join battle

Meanwhile, Crown institute Landcare Research will develop cutting-edge molecular, planning, pest control and economic innovations to overcome the goal's scientific hurdles.

Researchers will also create a new model covering cost, social and regulatory factors to determine the feasibility of current and new management options.

Read more: The ultimate kiwi-savers

New DNA-based techniques will be developed to estimate kiwi population size using scats and feathers, and identifying individual predators rather than just the species.

A new taxonomy would also be derived to clarify how many kiwi species there were, as well as where and which kiwi populations needed management.

Landcare Research scientist John Innes said it was important to identify the "genetic uniqueness" of species and subspecies in order to prioritise conservation.

A promising toxin called para-aminopropriophenone (PAPP) designed to target stoats - kiwi's number one predator - which can be aerially distributed, will also be tested to make sure kiwi and takahe aren't attracted to it.

"If we can get a meat bait to target stoats specifically and easily deploy it across large areas this will greatly help in the recovery of kiwi, particularly across rugged parts of the South Island that are difficult to access," Innes said.

The project, which would also see scientists work closely with iwi that don't yet have kiwi management plans in place, would build on decades of previous research about kiwi.

"We're no white knight," Innes said.

"These are sometimes fields that great people have been working in for some time. We're just trying to help where we can, a major scientific boost.

"Together, these diverse advances and new tools will help DOC, Kiwis for Kiwi, Maori and other involved communities recover kiwi populations faster, more cheaply, and across more of New Zealand."

The project is supported by a four-year $3.6 million grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund.

- NZ Herald

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