A grant for almost $300,000 has been given the green light by Waikato Regional Council for work aimed at ensuring the viability of the North Island kōkako on Mt Pirongia.

The successful Natural Heritage Fund application approved by the finance committee will help with pest control, as well as half-funding a position for a project co-ordinator, to ensure the wellbeing of the kōkako population translocated to Mt Pirongia two years ago.

Mt Pirongia kōkako. Photo / Amanda Rogers.
Mt Pirongia kōkako. Photo / Amanda Rogers.

While the $299,600 grant is subject to completion of a satisfactory funding deed with Pirongia Te Aroaro o Kahu Restoration Society, councillors agreed the society submitted financial accountability reports second-to-none, including kōkako monitoring results and evidence of all expenditure.

The grant, to be paid over four years, has been welcomed by Clare St Pierre, chair of the restoration society, a community organisation which has a range of projects in the park aimed at boosting natural biodiversity.

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"We're absolutely thrilled about the ongoing support of regional council and its generous endorsement for many teams of volunteers who put in hundreds of hours to bring back the mellifluous sounds of our native songbird to our maunga," she says.

Kōkako chick hatched on Mt Pirongia being held by Dave Bryden, who has just banded it. Photo / Clare St Pierre
Kōkako chick hatched on Mt Pirongia being held by Dave Bryden, who has just banded it. Photo / Clare St Pierre

Kaumatua and esteemed elder Tom Roa, Purekireki marae on the outskirts of Pirongia township, says:
"Ua ana, i ngaro atu tō mātou manu tioreore i te huringa o te rau tau kua pahemo ake nei ki Tiritiri mātangi i te moana o Hauraki, ka tahi, oti rā ki te wao nui a Tāne i Pureora. Mei kore, tēra pea kua ngaro atu tēnei momo ki te pō.
"Engari, nō nga tau e rua ki muri, ka puea ake anō te tangi me te wawata a Ngāti Apakura, ka tau iho anō tō mātou mōkai ki tōna taunga i te tihi o Pirongia, Te Aroaro o Kahu, ka umere anō te iwi.

"Sadly, we faced the difficult reality towards the end of last century when our indigenous songbird was relocated to Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf as well as the Pureora Forest.

The song of the kōkako

"Had this not happened we may have lost this local species forever.

Then two years ago, out of nowhere, came the melodic sound again of our local Ngati Apakura treasure. She had returned home to her ancestral breeding grounds where she originally came from and the people were once again filled with emotion."

Kōkako — a once common species now officially at risk — were present on Mt Pirongia till the 1990s when they were removed to join a captive breeding programme at Pukaha Mt Bruce, and subsequently to Kapiti Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island in the hope they would breed more successfully in their new abode.

Two years ago, 20 birds were successfully translocated to Mt Pirongia from Waipapa, Pureora Forest and a further 10 kōkako sourced from there last year were also released on Mt Pirongia.

Another 14 birds were brought home in July of last year from Tiritiri Matangi.
It is these latter birds that have the Pirongia genes, being descendants of some of the last kōkako rescued in the 1990s from the mountain to stop them from dying out. Now birds with the "Pirongia genes" have been brought back to their ancestral breeding grounds in the hope that the kōkako will re-establish themselves, with the support of existing pest control programmes being carried out on the maunga.

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The funding package will assist in extending the current 1000ha bait station grid by 200ha.

The end goal is the establishment of a large self-sustaining, genetically diverse group of more than 500 North Island kōkako in the forest park.

The beautiful song of the kōkako.

Noting that iwi and public support for the project was very high, Clare St Pierre told the finance committee that "an ongoing process of pest control management will provide an opportunity for the regional community and the 35,000 visitors to Mt Pirongia each year to encounter kōkako in their natural environment".

The total cost of the project is $723,726.

The successful natural heritage funding package signed off by the committee makes up 41.4 per cent of the total cost.