New Zealand is losing its national icon at a rate of 2 per cent of the population each year. What will it take to turn the tide and save our cherished namesake? In the first of a two-part series, science reporter Jamie Morton looks at conservation efforts.
Somewhere out there in the bush, scratching around under the puriri and ponga, is a little bird called Braveheart.
This damp, dark green and brown world, silent save for the grey warbler's song, must have appeared terrifyingly alien when he was dropped here last month.
The feisty kiwi had battled back from a hospital operation that mended a fracture in his jaw, before his minders figured him big enough to meet the wild.
On Coromandel's Kuaotunu Peninsula, he's since been learning how to do all the things a young North Island brown kiwi should - foraging and probing for tasty grubs.
His newfound freedom isn't quite complete, however, and Paula Williams is tasked with keeping a close eye on him.
On this sunny spring afternoon, in a clearing beside a clay track that gave our Suzuki Jimny 4WD a hell of a slog in, she's holding up an aerial and listening carefully to the faint signals Braveheart's transmitter is sending back.
It takes an hour of clambering across streams and over steep ridges before he's found hiding under a patch of scrub and probably wondering what gave him away.
A short backpack ride later and he's carefully weighed and measured, all the while wriggling and thrusting his powerful feet into Ms Williams' hips.
She's smiling: Braveheart has put on 20g since his last check.
"There aren't many other options for him ... so we've been really wanting him to survive in this environment."
Among more than 600 kiwi this forest is home to, Braveheart can lay claim to being the most exceptional Ms Williams and her husband Jon have yet met.
That's no small statement.
The Project Kiwi Trust the couple manage is the oldest community-based kiwi conservation programme in New Zealand.
Though it might sound measly, the extra 35 individuals added to the population since local man Lance Dew set up the Kuaotunu Kiwi Sanctuary 20 years ago is a remarkable feat.
There's now a better mix of juveniles and sexually mature adults, and intensive trapping has reduced the risk of an early and unpleasant death between the jaws of cats, stoats and ferrets.
On late autumn nights, you might sit in this clearing and hear the shrill mating calls of our national bird echo about the forest floor.
Yet as special as that nocturnal chorus might sound, it's tragically tiny compared to what it might have been had humans - and the tide of pest predators we brought with us - not invaded when they numbered in the millions and thrived in a well-suited, threat-free habitat.
While we're only just beginning to understand the origins of the kiwi in New Zealand - the most recent research suggests it evolved from a small bird that flew here tens of millions of years ago - what's happened to it since human settlement is sadly straightforward.
Mammalian predators have driven a brutally rapid decline, and stoats, particularly, have helped push kiwi chick survival in unmanaged areas to a mere 5 per cent.
Introduced in the 1880s to control rabbits, they failed miserably at that job and instead found a buffet of flightless birds that relied on camouflage as a means of defence - something not so effective against a ground-dwelling predator with a keen sense of smell.
Massey University ecologist Dr Isabel Castro has watched this play out in camera footage, which shows how kiwi freeze when they see a potential predator, and then run for a short distance and stop again.
"This provides ample opportunity for the predator to become interested in the kiwi and then to attack and kill it," she said.
"Some chicks don't even respond to an approaching predator at all."
The largest threat to adult kiwi remains not wild pests like stoats, possums, pigs or rats - who will eat their eggs and compete for their food if they don't kill them directly - but dogs.
Canines, more dangerous than even ferrets or car strike, can obliterate a population of adult breeding kiwi in a short space of time.
This year, it took dogs two months to kill seven kiwi near Kerikeri.
A heartbreaking photograph showing the bodies of the ravaged birds laid out on a mat, tags tied around their legs, demonstrated how a quick shake by a roaming dog was enough to kill the weak-chested kiwi.
For a long time while kiwi were being decimated, we weren't aware of the sheer extent of the unseen massacre taking place in the bush.
As European settlement advanced apace from the 1860s onwards, conservation efforts generally and correctly focused on preserving land - mainly forests - from clearance.
This resulted in our first national parks, scenic reserves, forest parks and forest sanctuaries, although, of course, these were mainly lands unwanted for farming.
Early New Zealand ornithology, in the decades up to 1900, emphasised the description of new species, and, over the next five decades, studies started to look closer at natural history and distribution.
However, knowledge and acceptance of mammal impacts didn't really emerge until the 1980s, simply because it was, and still remains, ecologically complex and hard to prove.
Pioneering surveys of rates of change of populations of various kiwi occurred from the 1970s and started to be published in the 1980s.
In 1983, renowned kiwi experts Dr Murray Potter and Dr John McLennan began studying kiwi behaviour among three populations in Hawkes Bay.
By the time they returned, in the early 1990s, one had declined by nearly 70 per cent and the two others had vanished completely.
Dr McLennan began hearing reports from trampers, hunters and farmers that kiwi signsand calls were missing from areas where a few years earlier they had been abundant.
When the first Kiwi Recovery Plan was published in 1991, its emphasis was still on determining kiwi taxonomy, distribution, rates of population change, and causes of declines.
"They were disappearing but we didn't know why, we didn't know how many we had left, and we didn't know where they still lived," said Michelle Impey, executive director of charity Kiwis for Kiwi.
"When we first really started paying attention to what was happening, we estimated that we were down to about 100,000, and they were declining at a rate of around 4 per cent per annum."
The Department of Conservation responded to the crisis by setting up a national network of five kiwi sanctuaries, in Whangarei, Coromandel, Tongariro, Haast and Okarito.
Community-led projects, like that in Kuaotunu, began springing up around the country.
Today, while the overall population has plummeted further to about 70,000 birds, the annual decline rate has been reined back to 2 per cent.
The fightback has only just succeeded in pulling some of the rarest species, like the Haast tokoeka and rowi, from the brink of extinction.
This month, DoC rangers returned 50 young rowi to Okarito forest, bringing the local population to between 400 and 500 in what was the biggest transfer yet of rowi in a single day.
When the rowi recovery project kicked off in 2006, there were fewer than 200 birds. DoC aims to increase the population to 600 by 2018.
Numbers of the Haast tokoeka have also nearly doubled, to around 400 alive today.
At "Kohanga" kiwi sanctuaries, typically fenced-off island strongholds, kiwi numbers are built up until birds reach carrying capacity and are then cropped to establish new populations or boost existing ones.
The year 2012 saw the formation of what is now Kiwis for Kiwi, an umbrella organisation to raise funds and spread awareness of the more than 90 community-led projects it sits across.
The charity has so far distributed $7 million of grants to these grassroot efforts, which protect a combined 225,000ha of kiwi habitat.
Nearly half of that is Crown land, so they're stepping up to help out where they know DoC isn't resourced adequately.
Pest and predator control remains by far the most effective and widely used weapon in kiwi conservation and the answer to the bird's long-term survival.
It's carried out largely by the community with trapping and some toxins, and by DoC over vast areas with large-scale 1080 poison operations.
As controlling dogs and cats remains a separate issue to tackle, pest and predator control regimes are typically focused on mustelids, possums and rats.
"Kiwi have been a fantastic example of conservation on a small scale," Auckland University pest control expert Dr James Russell said.
"Through combining research, management and sponsorship in the past we have been able to critically identify the precise threats to kiwi - namely juvenile predation by stoats - and develop appropriate response strategies.
"This stands out as another example of where New Zealand really leads the world in implementing inclusive conservation solutions."
Dr Russell saw the problem as one of scale and efficiency.
Although with investment we could save kiwi in single locations, the investment required to actually achieve the broad-scale conservation we are responsible for, he said, has been under-appreciated.
In dollar figures, there's a current combined $12 million a year spent on kiwi conservation.
About a third of this comes from DoC and the rest comes from Kiwis for Kiwi and more than 100 community groups, iwi, hapu, whanau, private organisations, and zoos.
The funding helps support those at the frontline, collecting and raising chicks until they're big enough to fend off stoats, and others who trap predators or host training sessions for dog owners in kiwi areas.
In the May Budget, the Government banked an extra $11.2 million over four years, which would allow DoC to more than double the area it protects for kiwi, expand breeding programmes and send $3.5 million toward community efforts.
It followed a bleak briefing last year to incoming Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, warning that our national bird could be lost from the mainland within our grandchildren's lifetimes - and could die out altogether within 50 years - without continuing intervention.
Despite this, Treasury advised the Government not to add the extra funding to the Budget as it was "not aligned with overall Government priorities".
"I absolutely rejected their analysis and completely disagreed with the Treasury on this and so did the Prime Minister and my colleagues, which is why we got that extra money through the Budget round," Ms Barry told the Herald.
She thought the figures around the kiwis' plight chilling - particularly that nine out of 10 chicks born in the wild die without protection from predators.
"We are not going to stand by and let our national icon disappear, which is why we have targeted increasing the numbers by two per cent a year."
At the heart of this battle is Operation Nest Egg, which, for 20 years, has helped chicks to bypass their most vulnerable point in life. Between 200 and 250 are now hatched and released each year through the project.
For their parents, it must be a harrowing ordeal: the large eggs they've painfully laid and incubated for weeks are snatched away in the dead of night when they briefly leave their nests.
But the odds of their young surviving to reach juvenile age after being hatched and reared at Rotorua-based Kiwi Encounter are plainly higher than in the ever-present dangers of the wild.
Soon to mark its 1500th hatching, the country's largest kiwi conservation centre receives eggs from 13 sanctuaries, and then incubates them at increasing heat until they're ready for transfer to a special hatch room.
On average, it takes five days for chicks to go through the hatch process - but just 20 minutes for them to crack through the egg.
Their first 48 hours of life are rather groggy ones, spent recouping from past five days' effort. But it doesn't take them long to develop the feistiness most kiwi are born with.
"They certainly don't like being petted, picked up or cuddled, and right from an early stage, they'll hiss, spit and try to kick you," husbandry manager Claire Travers said. "They are wild animals and we give them that respect."
Written on a wall is everything you might want to know about a kiwi chick. Braveheart, whose damaged bill was first noticed by Ms Travers and her team, happened to be named after a Scotsman from sponsor company SGS.
Fat Freddie still holds the record as the heftiest new chick, with a hatch weight of 432g.
Once recovered, the chicks are moved to the brooder room, where they're acclimatised to the wild with an artificial diet inside darkened boxes lined with peat moss and fern fronds.
While the hatch rate was just 50 per cent at the operation's outset, that had now climbed to 93 per cent.
It's something that will prove critical to a vision shared between Kiwis for Kiwi and DoC to arrest kiwi decline and grow numbers at a rate of two per cent within 15 years.
DoC kiwi recovery group leader Dr Jennifer Germano said this goal applied to all species, not just the most endangered.
"Kiwi are our national bird, a symbol of New Zealand," she said. "It would be amazing to be moving in the direction of all New Zealanders being able to see and experience these special creatures rather than [from] further away."