The rowi, the world's rarest kiwi species, have returned to the North Island for the first time in hundreds of years.

A total of 20 were helicoptered to Mana Island near Wellington today in the hopes of establishing a new colony.

DOC spokesman Herb Christophers said rowi used to inhabit up to the south of the Tararua ranges in the lower North Island but were wiped out in pre-European times.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) removed the 20 rowi eggs during spring, 2010, from the Okarito forest in South Westland to protect them from predators as part of Operation Nest Egg.


After they hatched that summer at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef, the chicks were raised to maturity on predator-free Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

The rowi, ranging from 12 to 18 months old, were transferred to their new home on Mana Island today courtesy of the Air Force.

By sending a juvenile population north to predator-free Mana Island, rowi will be able to breed with less human interference.

Accompanying the rowi was Richard Wallace, a representative of Ngai Tahu hapu on the West Coast, Kati Mahaki ki Makaawhio.

With the rowi now in the North Island, kaitiaki - guardianship of the kiwi - has been transferred to Ngati Toa Rangatira.

Having been involved with kiwi since the early 1990s, Mr Wallace said he was "a little bit anxious" about the future of the rare birds.

"The rowi are very special to us." It's something we've done for a number of years [act as guardians for the rowi] and now we're handing that, a little reluctantly, across to another iwi to do that for us."

Ngati Toa representative Kahu Ropata said the birds were tuakana - older brothers and sisters to Maori - so they were treated like chiefs.

He said Mana Island was an stronghold to Te Rangihaeata, a great chief, so it was an appropriate new home for the kiwi.

"Now it's a stronghold for our birds."

The first bird released on the island was named in honour of the chief.

DOC kiwi ranger Duncan Kay said kiwi usually bred at four years old but with less competition they tended to breed better on islands.

The kiwi could live up to 60 years and as the birds start breeding some would be taken off the island and replaced with rowi from other areas of the country to maintain genetic diversity.

Mr Wallace said that after hearing about the reinforced predator-free status of Mana Island he was quite happy.

"I was a bit anxious, but once the powhiri process started I became more and more comfortable."

"These rowi will probably have the best chance of survival and survival for the species by being here."

There are around 380 rowi left in the the south Okarito forest, a slow increase on when numbers dropped below 200.

The rowi will be sharing Mana Island with giant weta, McGregor's skink, takahe, pukeko, native robins, kakariki and little blue penguins.

Prior to being a wildlife sanctuary, Mana Island was a sheep, then cow farm and has since been planted with more than 500,000 native plants.