A visiting conservationist and molecular biologist has joined calls to save our national bird.

Dr Stephen O'Brien, who is globally renowned for using tools of molecular biology to help protect endangered species, has been able to hold a kiwi during his speaking tour of the country.

The US scientist told the Herald the kiwi was an "icon that was worth rallying around", remarking he wouldn't want any New Zealanders to have to explain to their children or grandchildren that their namesake had been lost to extinction.

Dr Stephen O'Brien.
Dr Stephen O'Brien.

Despite conservation efforts, New Zealand's 70,000-strong kiwi population was being lost at a rate of 2 per cent each year - or 27 birds every week - and the Department of Conservation has warned that without intervention, kiwi could die out within 50 years.

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Dr O'Brien also backed the concept of a genome bank that could preserve bio-materials - particularly reproductive materials - of our threatened wildlife.

New Zealand already had an example in a frozen sperm bank to help support a kakapo population that has dwindled to 126 birds.

He believed it was possible to rescue critically endangered species, and in the 1990s, his research in genetics helped save the Florida panther, which had been pulled back from a population of 30 to around 160 today.