What's it going to take to save our national icon? A landmark report has finally put a dollar figure on reversing the decline of kiwi but, explains Jamie Morton in the second of a two-part series, each of us also has a part to play.

Ian Tarei is waiting. After countless nights sitting in the bush, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, it's something he's become familiar with.

On this cloudless, starry October evening, the reason he is waiting is perched on a nest just a hundred or so metres down an old loggers track, deep inside a cosy burrow.

Once the male kiwi hops off the nest and stretches his legs around the gully, Mr Tarei will get a brief window to snatch the egg the bird has been incubating for the past 66 days.

At 11.30pm, it's been nearly four hours, lying among some dry flax and clad only in a bush shirt, track pants and gumboots.

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A motion sensor device. Photo / Alan Gibson
A motion sensor device. Photo / Alan Gibson

Then the pattern of beeps being transmitted from the kiwi changes, which suggests he's finally on the move. Mr Tarei and fellow field worker Hamiora Stretch head down with their tracker aerial and chilly bin, but it's a false alarm; the bird hasn't budged.

A nearby call from another male, piercing through the darkness, explains why. Venturing too far from the nest might mean he loses his egg to a younger male, so he's happy to stay put.

Mr Tarei goes back to waiting, until realising, at close to 1am, the sleepy journalists tagging along might not be as keen on the idea of sticking around until sunrise. It's just our luck that when he returns alone the next night, the kiwi takes his walk at a more comfortable time of 9.30pm.

Mr Tarei is able to recover the egg and bring it to Rotorua's Kiwi Encounter, where it'll be hatched without risk of being eaten by stoats.

The possum fur trapper-turned-conservationist is the rough-cut face of the Omataroa Kiwi Project - an iwi-led effort which oversees kiwi living amid protected Maori land in the forested hills behind Awakeri and Te Teko.

Since learning how to track and handle kiwi, he's been passing his skills on to local youth around the inland eastern Bay of Plenty community.

It's a posterboy project for grassroots conservation. Local schools and kohanga reo take part in kiwi releases and hunting clubs muck in by culling wild pigs and training dogs not to kill kiwi.

"As owners of the land, we are on here doing our own mahi, and we are restoring the birds, you know," Mr Tarei says. "That's what buzzes me out."

Up and down the country, there are around 90 other projects like it that rely on Kiwis saving kiwi. On average, these groups donate around 44 per cent of their total costs, mostly for time volunteered for administration, trap-checking and advocacy.

Given that just 24 per cent of remaining 70,000 kiwi are under some form of management, locals doing their bit are vital to their survival. Fortunately, the numbers suggest public will isn't a problem; only finding enough resources to support them all is.

"Never before have so many New Zealanders accepted the value of our native biodiversity, and been willing to fight so hard to protect it," said Auckland University ecologist Dr James Russell.

"Just like the small amount of local pest control which brings back fantails, tui and morepork, only small but meaningful changes are required to gather the momentum required to save kiwi, and all the other species we value, in our country."

As with most experts approached by the Herald, Dr Russell is optimistic about the kiwi's long-term future. But there's much more we can be doing.

While pest control methods could save all 10 kinds of kiwi, they are far from perfect and serious technology advances are needed, Landcare Research wildlife ecologist John Innes said.

Claire Travers, a kiwi husbandry manager doing work to save the native bird, says her job has never lost its magic.

Across remote and rugged Department of Conservation-run land stretching from the tens to thousands of hectares, aerially dropped 1080 poison is one of the few ways to keep stoat populations down.

And of roughly 3.8 million hectares of kiwi habitat in New Zealand, about 2.7 million hectares of that is public conservation land.

If efficient new toxins, such as para amino propiophenone, or PAPP, could be registered with a suitable bait for aerial distribution, 1080 might have a suitable alternative.

On the ground, stoat trapping and monitoring could be vastly improved if efficient lures were found for multiple-kill traps or other detection devices.

Promisingly, multi-catch traps, like the effective innovations of Wellington-based Goodnature, have been growing steadily more reliable.

Landcare Research has also begun investigating smart new camouflage techniques, where predators can be distracted away by widespread distribution of odours or sound lures that mimic real prey.

Meanwhile, however, knowledge of kiwi population sizes and rates of change remain generally poorly understood, which hampers management.

DoC kiwi recovery group leader Dr Jennifer Germano expected this would be improved with new technology like automated call count monitoring and genetic tools.

With the potential to make large estimates based on such subtleties as kiwi droppings or dropped feathers, rangers could measure their efforts and concentrate them where most needed.

 Fellow Omataroa Kiwi Project field worker Hamiora Stretch (right) checks a trap with a dead possum in it. Photo / Alan Gibson
Fellow Omataroa Kiwi Project field worker Hamiora Stretch (right) checks a trap with a dead possum in it. Photo / Alan Gibson

Reintroduction biology expert Professor Doug Armstrong, of Massey University, felt kiwi conservation had largely been "done right", with good research to identify threats and then model and implement management action.

"However, it's questionable whether some of the very intensive management currently being done is sustainable in the long-term, so this needs to be looked at strategically."

He gave credit to the more than 60 kiwi translocations so far, which had involved all five species and rescued the little spotted kiwi, moved to Kapiti Island a century ago, from oblivion.

Amid the backdrop of these large-scale conservation challenges, a lingering headache is how to stop so many of our dogs killing adult kiwi. This isn't so much a predator control issue as a social one, said Kiwis for Kiwi executive director Michelle Impey.

"There is ignorance or denial - or worse yet, indifference - by dog owners to the damage that their dog can do, no matter the size, breed, or amount of training."

This month, DoC allocated part of a $226,000 kiwi community conservation fund towards Te Rarawa for dog training in problem area Northland.

Professor Mick Clout acknowledged roaming dogs, along with the wider battle of beating back pests, still posed a big challenge. But the respected Auckland University conservation ecologist added we've learned much in the past 20 years, and are finally in a position to turn the tide - provided there's a concerted effort.

"DoC has done a generally good job, but hasn't had the resources to turn things around nationwide."

So what would it cost?

A new landmark Landcare Research report, commissioned by Kiwis for Kiwi, has crunched the numbers. The situation has been greatly eased by a special $11.2 million package announced in this year's Budget, to cover the next four years.

Following this, there will be a total $6.8 million a year to throw into the battle, but it won't quite be enough to turn the annual 2 per cent population decline into 2 per cent growth.

The new report estimated an additional $2.6 million will be needed a year over the next 15 years just to halt the drop, after which an extra $1.3 million a year would be required above base-lined Government funding to begin the population rebuild.

Kiwis for Kiwi's Ms Impey, whose group will meet the shortfall through corporate sponsorship and donations, said the significance of this research was "monumental".

"For the first time ever we have a road map, a fundraising target and an idea of how much we need to do to truly turn around the decline of kiwi," she said.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said that while the report wasn't available when the Budget bid was constructed, it did confirm investment would grow the population of half the kiwi species and halt the decline of the rest.

Ms Barry believed that, under present policy and legislative mechanisms, saving the kiwi was "absolutely" a goal within our reach. Perhaps if there was anything needed, she said, it would be to strengthen some council bylaws around dog control.

But academics have called for much larger changes, including a legislative overhaul and a much broader financial base for DoC.

Dr Russell said that what the Government spent on conservation - just $2 per person per year - was minuscule when compared with other portfolios.

Along with an upgrade of the Wildlife Act, now more than 60 years old, more robust policy was urgently needed to deal with pest control and conservation breaches on private land.

Beefing up threatened species legislation was a key priority identified by the new Environmental Defence Society book Vanishing Nature: Facing New Zealand's Biodiversity Crisis, which made for the first comprehensive stock-take of the country's natural heritage and efforts to protect it.

"At the moment, damaging nature is something our economy rewards; controls and penalties are few and the monetary gains significant," said the book's lead author, Dr Marie Brown.

An egg is inspected as hatching begins at the Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua's Rainbow Springs where Claire Travers (right) is the kiwi husbandry manager. Photo / Alan Gibson
An egg is inspected as hatching begins at the Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua's Rainbow Springs where Claire Travers (right) is the kiwi husbandry manager. Photo / Alan Gibson

"This needs to change through the introduction of novel economic institutions that tax harm to nature and reward environmentally responsible actions."

The book set out a slew of possible solutions in law and policy, science and research and in supporting community conservation -- virtually all of which were relevant to saving the kiwi, she said.

The average New Zealander, meanwhile, could make a difference either through getting involved in the political process, donating money, joining or starting a conservation group or simply learning how to better control their pets.

DoC threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki believed most Kiwis cared deeply about their green backyard and, when given the right information and opportunity to help, many were keen to put their hands up.

In separate surveys by DoC and Lincoln University that asked people to rank native species, the kiwi unsurprisingly came out on the top.

Yet, Ms Toki said, most of us probably have no idea how many we have lost, or that the little spotted kiwi is effectively extinct in the wild on mainland New Zealand because of its bantam-like size.

Another survey, commissioned by Kiwis for Kiwi two years ago, found just 53 per cent of respondents knew numbers were falling, and eight out of 10 had never seen their national bird in the wild.

"What we found was that awareness of the plight of kiwi was low, and this low awareness led to apathy," Ms Impey said.

"But people feel very strongly about kiwi as a species to be protected."

Scientists especially say we simply can't lose what's a taonga for evolutionary biology and part of a whole other ornithological super-order.

Massey University ecologist Dr Isabel Castro explained that kiwi sit on a very old branch of the avian tree, alongside only a handful of the species including ostrich, cassowary, tinamous, rhea, and the now-extinct moa and elephant bird.

Paula Williams from the Project Kiwi Trust works hard to keep track of kiwis, making sure New Zealand’s iconic bird survives.

On the other branch, she said, is no less than every other species of bird in the world.

Being an oddity, the kiwi was a particularly handy species to study how characteristics and behaviours had evolved and adapted to certain environments.

This year, the kiwi became one of only 50 from 10,000 bird species worldwide to have its genome mapped. The astonishing findings revealed it was colourblind and had evolved its sense of smell and colour 35 million years ago to help it cope with its nocturnal life sniffing around the undergrowth at night.

As for the kiwi's value to us - from its use in countless products, branding and tourism marketing, to its place in our collective consciousness - to call it priceless would be an understatement.

Ms Toki noted how its long, deep cultural affiliation spans from Maori legend through to the nickname given to us while forging a national identity in two world wars.

The bird's plucky spirit, staunch nature and uniqueness to our country made it a fitting national symbol.

Ms Barry pointed out how the late Don Merton - perhaps to New Zealand conservation what Sir Edmund Hillary was to mountaineering - summed kiwi up as "national monuments".

"They are unique," the minister said. "As a nation we may not have the pyramids or the Arc de Triomphe but we do have our birds. They have been here for millions of years and are part of what defines us as a nation - and we owe it to future generations to ensure they survive and thrive."

Paula Williams searches the bush at Kuaotunu on the Coromandel to find and monitor Braveheart. Photo / Alan Gibson
Paula Williams searches the bush at Kuaotunu on the Coromandel to find and monitor Braveheart. Photo / Alan Gibson