A conservation hero stepping down from a national kiwi-saving charity is optimistic our national icon won't go extinct.

Sir Rob Fenwick has spent a decade as chairman of Kiwis for Kiwi, which was launched 25 years ago to help the Department of Conservation (DOC) rescue New Zealand's national bird from oblivion.

While DOC focused on the conservation estate, Kiwis for Kiwi's mission was to boost kiwi populations on private land, where most North Island kiwi were found.

"It is an enduring and respectful partnership, but we both have to work hard to understand each other's differences," the 67-year-old told the Herald.

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"One is a large, government-funded bureaucracy with lots of resources and networks, the other a small charitable trust, part funded by the Government, and part funded by philanthropy and sponsorship, that is agile and impatient for rapid change," he said.

"Both are very clear about the shared mission and how each will achieve it."

For most of the past two decades, both had also been working hard just keeping the kiwi population – today about 70,000 - stable.

In reality, however, kiwi numbers have been falling at a rate of two per cent each year, putting the species on a path to extinction within just 60 years.

Three years ago, both groups adopted a transformational new strategy that would first halt the decline – and then turn that two per cent annual drop on its head.

The first part of the plan was harvesting more eggs, which required more highly trained handlers, dogs and electronic equipment to get them out of the wild and into incubation facilities before predators could eat them.

The second part was setting up safe creches for kiwi chicks, which were particularly vulnerable.

In the bush, an estimated two of 10 chicks survived the constant harassment from wild cats, stoats, dogs and rats.

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If a kiwi could grow to 800g, it would be big enough to face down a stoat.

Sir Rob said one of these creches was needed for each of the northern, Coromandel, eastern and western North Island sub-species.

"They can be on predator free islands like Motutapu in Hauraki Gulf, or areas on the mainland where predators have been eradicated like Maungatautari Sanctuary."

Lastly, the strategy depended on a predator-free landscape, giving kiwi thousands of hectares to safely breed and flourish.

In each of these three areas, Sir Rob said, efforts were tracking in the right direction, but that progress needed to move faster, which required funding, and "a lot of work".

He believed that if New Zealand failed to save its most famous species, the outlook for conservation more generally would be "very bleak".

Kiwi conservationist Sir Rob Fenwick with a rare Coromandel brown kiwi, which was named
Kiwi conservationist Sir Rob Fenwick with a rare Coromandel brown kiwi, which was named "Ropata" after him. Photo / File

Still, he added, the situation today wasn't as grim as it was 25 years ago, when scientists didn't even have an accurate census of the population.

"We didn't properly understand the range of predators that were destroying them let alone how to get rid of the pests," he said.

"However, what we've had all along is a large group of conservation enthusiasts, knowing something was wrong and working voluntarily trapping wild cats, stoats and possums on a voluntary basis.

"Without them the kiwi population would probably be half what it is today, especially in Northland and Coromandel."

Leaving his chairman role, he paid tribute to the charity's hard-working executive director Michelle Impey, who had built a skilled team of field workers tasked with supporting community groups.

Sir Rob will be succeeded by a well-known figure in sport and the public sector, Richard Leggat.

"As the inspiration behind the NZ Cycle Trail and a vigorous advocate for top end eco-tourism, Richard is ideal for this role."

'People are really excited'

He was further heartened by the grassroots groundswell that was the Predator Free New Zealand movement.

"The campaign has captured the hearts and minds of people everywhere," he said.

"People are really excited about bringing back the birds to their neighbourhoods

"The media is excited, sponsors are more excited and it means central and local politicians from across the spectrum are funding well managed predators projects."

Conservation of nature, he believed, was dependent on a strong, well-funded DOC and an army of volunteers who felt acknowledged and were well supported.

"DOC has received good support from this government and the tourism tax will help, but to achieve large predator free landscapes, which is now the policy of both this and the previous government, will take more resources."

Last year, the Predator Free New Zealand Trust – which Sir Rob also chaired - called for better support structures, a new system where funding was prioritised based on ecological need, and a clear strategy with set objectives that could be checked against.

If New Zealand failed to save its most famous species, Sir Rob Fenwick says, the outlook for conservation more generally would be
If New Zealand failed to save its most famous species, Sir Rob Fenwick says, the outlook for conservation more generally would be "very bleak". Photo / Supplied

"The people who volunteer and get behind conservation are simply amazing. They need all the encouragement and support they can get."

He planned to stay involved in conservation and, with others, had recently founded the Aotearoa Circle, which brought together public and private sector leaders to halt biodiversity decline.

Nearly everywhere, New Zealand's natural capital was declining.

Scientists were measuring this through loss of topsoil, degradation of freshwater, atmospheric warming, ocean pollution and native flora and fauna being pushed closer to the brink.

"Some measures, such as the numbers of endangered species, or nitrate pollution in waterways, are more exact than others, but no one is questioning that the trends are negative and have been for decades," Sir Rob said.

"This is deeply troubling because, looking forward, we will reach a tipping point when loss of productive soils cripples our economy or atmospheric temperatures become progressively unsurvivable.

"Whether in 50 years or 200 years, the inter-generational threat of these trends is terminal.

"Our descendants will starve."