It's been two years since the Department of Conservation launched an ambitious plan to save our national bird. In the second of a two-part series, science reporter Jamie Morton looks at the strides made so far.

Before 2003, the rowi didn't exist – at least to us.

While set apart by its soft, slightly greyish plumage and occasional white facial feathers, the bird was long thought to have been a variety of the brown kiwi until researchers realised it was a distinct species.

Had this little bird not managed to hang on, our rarest kiwi species might have vanished without ever having been documented.

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When the rowi recovery project kicked off in 2006, there were fewer than 200 birds.

Today, it's estimated about 600 exist, most within the Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary near Franz Josef.

By 2030, the Department of Conservation wants to push that figure out to nearly 900, under its 10-year draft plan to save all kiwi.

By turning an annual 2 per cent decline into a 2 per cent increase, DoC aspired to lift the total kiwi population from 70,000 to 100,000, all within just over a decade.

Backed by a new $3.6 million research programme, DoC also sought to restore the national distribution of all species of kiwi – particularly those closest to the brink, such as rowi and Haast tokoeka - and maintain their genetic diversity.

It was running in tandem with a collaborative effort overseen by charity Kiwis for Kiwi, which aimed to boost the number of kiwi chicks in predator-free creches.

There, they could safely grow and start reproducing, so their young could be moved to other predator-free areas to start new populations.

REASON TO HOPE

Over five years, Kiwis for Kiwi would focus mainly on stocking kohanga sites on the North Island, and on a trapping programme for great spotted kiwi on the South Island.

Ordinarily, it would take 50 years or more for these sites to reach capacity - but Kiwis for Kiwi wanted to slash that time frame down to five to 10 years.

Executive director Michelle Impey said although it was still early days, there was reason to be hopeful.

"We are off to an excellent start, with implementation well under way in some regions."

The charity had its sights set on three regional populations: Coromandel brown kiwi, Western brown kiwi and Eastern brown kiwi.

In the first year of its plan, more Coromandel brown kiwi were released on the Hauraki Gulf's Motutapu Island than the previous five years combined.

Joining those 31 birds on the island would be another 40 this breeding season.

"We have a monitoring programme in draft, and once finalised, will guide the methods we use to measure when it is time to start removing kiwi from the island," Impey said.

"It is exciting that this is becoming a reality and within a few short years, we could be ready to start removing a few young kiwi from the island for release to the wild.

"Our target is 180 additional kiwi to be released."

Another major milestone was reached this month at Waikato's Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, where the first of 500 Western brown kiwi were released.

"We are doing a significant amount of work in the region to identify new source sites so that we can locate more wild kiwi," she said.

"This means in 2019-20 breeding season we will ramp up field work significantly to increase the number of kiwi released to the maunga."

The rowi was long thought to have been a variety of the brown kiwi until researchers realised it was a distinct species. Photo / File
The rowi was long thought to have been a variety of the brown kiwi until researchers realised it was a distinct species. Photo / File

Kiwis for Kiwi was still discussing plans with landowners, iwi and DoC to conserve its other target species, the Eastern brown kiwi.

In the South Island, DoC was rolling out new landscape-scale predator control programmes to tackle the large tracts of inaccessible back country where tokoeka and great spotted kiwi live.

Its Save Our Iconic Kiwi programme was focused on those sites where the greatest decline had been observed, and was being run in tandem with its Battle for our Birds initiative, backed by $81m in funding over the next four years.

Forest & Bird chief conservation adviser Kevin Hackwell, who helped develop the draft recovery plan, said funding was critical to the kiwi cause.

"When we wrote the draft plan we had our fingers crossed for an increase of baseline predator control of 50,000ha per year - that would have seen a slow but steady increase in landscape management, but it would have taken 10 to 15 years to reach 1 million ha," he said.

"With the Battle for Our Birds response to beech masting and rat and stoat plagues, and the new Government's commitment to predator control, DoC now has the baseline resourcing to scale up quickly to 2 million ha under sustained pest management.

"That is really good news for the wild populations of kiwi that are not otherwise under intense predator management."

OUR NATIONAL ICON

DoC ecology technical adviser Jess Scrimgeour said the past year had been spent holding kiwi recovery efforts steady, as DoC prepared to step up operations over the coming 12 months.

That included looking at what was needed to further lift rowi numbers, as well as beefing up predator control in the Haast Kiwi Sanctuary, where just 450 Haast tokoeka remained.

Outside of these managed refuges, trapping programmes were ramping up around the country, protecting more than 200,000ha of kiwi habitat.

Since Kiwis for Kiwi launched in 2012, it's raised millions of dollars and spread awareness of the dozens of community-led projects it sat across.

Impey said these would ensure pest control could still happen in areas where toxins couldn't be used.

More importantly, they were drawing more volunteers to the cause.

"If we can't do this for kiwi, our national icon, what hope do other species have?" says Kiwis for Kiwi executive director Michelle Impey. Photo / File

"This is growing, and interestingly some of the growth is coming via an increase in urban pest control projects, with 34 urban communities at last count coming on board to rid their areas of pests and predators," she said.

"We are seeing the growth of large initiatives such as Cape to City in Hawke's Bay, a 26,000ha predator control project that is council-led but includes many private landowners in the project footprint.

"Kiwi Coast in Northland also provides a positive example of how infectious it becomes for individuals or individual landowners to participate in the effort to control pests and predators when they are part of a greater collective vision."

What made that vision so important?

Impey said the kiwi, in its own right, was a very interesting bird that had been here for hundreds of thousands of years, unevolved and completely suited to life on the ground in New Zealand.

"It's belongs here, arguably more than we do," she said.

"Of course there is also the obvious reason that it is our national icon.

"People often like to say 'what would we call ourselves if the kiwi disappeared?'

"It's a legitimate question and quite honestly I think it would be an international embarrassment if we allowed our national bird to disappear, particularly when we have the tools, the will and the means to save them.

"The kiwi recovery programme is one of the most comprehensive species recovery plans in the country, so to me, the fight to save kiwi is symbolic of so much more.

"If we can't do this for kiwi, our national icon, what hope do other species have?"

Kids' book helping save kiwi

Harry and Meghan get an up-close look at the kiwi chicks they named. Kiwi Encounter husbandry manager Emma Bean, left, holds Tihei, while Kiwi For Kiwis' Michelle Impey, holds Koha. Photo / NZME
Harry and Meghan get an up-close look at the kiwi chicks they named. Kiwi Encounter husbandry manager Emma Bean, left, holds Tihei, while Kiwi For Kiwis' Michelle Impey, holds Koha. Photo / NZME

Kiwis have a chance to win a prize fit for a prince and princess.

A popular author and illustrator is putting part of the proceeds of her latest book toward a cause long dear to her – saving kiwi.

Through her 10 books on Kuwi the Kiwi, Kat Merewether has raised more than $30,000 for Kiwis for Kiwi – the national charity that supports community kiwi conservation projects.

That's enough to protect 300 kiwi for a year.

During Prince Harry and Meghan's visit this week, Kiwis for Kiwi presented the entire book collection - autographed by Merewether - as its official gift to the royal couple and their coming baby.

Merewether has always been a passionate conservationist, taking the lead from her father who worked at the former Wildlife Department.

Through her books on Kuwi the kiwi, Kat Merewether has raised more than $30,000 for Kiwis for Kiwi. Photo / Supplied
Through her books on Kuwi the kiwi, Kat Merewether has raised more than $30,000 for Kiwis for Kiwi. Photo / Supplied

"Kiwi have always fascinated me and I would spend hours as a child in the bush imagining I saw kiwi in the shrubbery," she said.

"Unfortunately, there were none to be seen. So now I'm helping the only way I know how."

Merewether also travels the country talking to schools about kiwi conservation, in her role as an official Kiwis for Kiwi ambassador, and conducts illustration workshops.

Kiwis for Kiwi executive director Michelle Impey said Merewether had become an invaluable member of the team.

"Kat has the ability to bring kiwi to life in her delightful children's books and puts so much passion into educating children about the plight of kiwi and inspiring them to do something about it."

The Kuwi series consistently sit on the Top Ten Bestsellers list and three of the books have been translated into te reo Māori.

Merewether has also created a Kuwi the Kiwi themed colouring book, toys, puzzles, children's eco-friendly dinnerware and a cookbook.

In her latest book, Kuwi's Rowdy Crowd, all Kuwi the Kiwi wants is to sit down with a quiet cup of tea but wherever she goes, someone turns up to shatter the peace.

The book was inspired by Merewether's own experiences with her three children.

This week saw the 200,000th book in the series - eclipsing the 5000 that Merewether once aspired to sell.

The Herald has five sets of the Kuwi the Kiwi books to give away - and you can be in to win by sending us an email about why you deserve to at saveourkiwi@nzme.co.nz.

Entries need to be in by 5pm Sunday and winners will be contacted on Monday.

People can also meet Merewether herself on her national book tour, visiting Nelson's Page & Blackmore store at 11am this Saturday, the General Collective Market in Auckland at 9am on November 11, White Gold in Whakatāne at 11am on November 17, The Tannery in Christchurch at 11am on November 24, and the Kina Gallery in New Plymouth at 11am on December 2.

How kiwi are faring

Little spotted kiwi:

Found on several offshore islands and two mainland sanctuaries. Population estimate: 1800. 2030 projection: 2900.

Great spotted kiwi: Found in the northwestern South Island and around Arthur's Pass. Population estimate: 14,800. 2030 projection: 19,900.

Rowi: Found at Okarito on the West Coast of the South Island. Population estimate: 600. 2030 projection: 900.

Brown kiwi: Found in the North Island. Population estimate: 23,500. 2030 projection: 35,400.

Tokoeka: Found in Fiordland, the Haast Range and Rakiura/Stewart Island. Population estimate: 24,600. 2030 projection: 35,000.