|Photo/Shane McInnes *|
The Kakapo, a large flightless nocturnal parrot endemic to New Zealand, is keen to do as nature does. He sees the location device before him. The urge to sire courses through the body, and he begins to hump the machine. The waddling motions are his bliss.
Meantime, the recovery team is keeping tabs on the entire known population, each with a name. The goal is to get the males to hit the right targets more often than not during the mating season. And this does prove difficult: an actual mating ritual in the wild has been witnessed few times, though the unusual low calls of the males can be heard echoing through the night terrain every mating season. More often on film we see the now famous Sirocco, charged with mission, mounting a human head, as was the case in the rather humorous incident with zoologist Mark Carwardine from the 2009 BBC Two documentary narrated by Stephen Fry.
Because New Zealand historically has had no native predatory mammals, the Kakapo, along with many of the islands' birds, have little fear of humans, which in the not-so-distant past led to things such as cooked Kakapo, Maori cloaks and so on. You can certainly imagine the story getting worse after British colonialization, and so it did. The introduction of non-native predatory species nearly wiped out the population altogether. But Kakapo are fast runners and climbers, scurrying through the thickets and sprinting up limbs. They hung on, and today are being tended on isolated predator-free islands in the far south by the Department of Conservation and volunteers using radio transmitters and other kinds of specialized equipment.
Now according to George Gibbs **, the birds’ nocturnal patterns and camouflaged plumage may have something to do with more ancient enemies – Haast’s Eagle, Eyles’ Harrier. The Kakapo took to the evening underbrush seeking refuge, and perhaps instinctively to this day, they are wary of ambush from above, though these aerial predators have been extinct for centuries.
The true enemy now attacks from within. According to Scott Mouat’s 2009 documentary The Unnatural History of the Kakapo (the one in which I witnessed the radio transmitter getting humped), lack of diversity in the gene pool has been producing a number of offspring that do not make it far past the first days, if they make it out of the egg at all. Enter bird fertilization specialist Dr. Juan Blanco, who by massaging the nethermost parts of the males can then artificially inseminate females not in the same family as their male counterparts. This has recently met with some success, and in conjunction with steering the males in the right direction has led to a significant population increase. The team is now looking to slowly reintroduce the species on the larger islands in the Fiordland region where it once dwelled.
The story here, much like Whooping Crane conservation efforts in the United States, is equal parts science and human commitment. The standard radio transmitter has for generations been and is still an integral part of conservation, locating and monitoring the lives of endangered animals for which we have chosen to care. But the ability to map to the entire genome of a species and spot problems identifies solutions in ways never before possible. Without the knowledge gained from genetic research, we would have more limited resources, not only with regard to the Kakapo, but with regard to tackling the challenges of our own bodies. With it, we can begin a greater story; sure, more good for ourselves, with ample room for other possibilities, ones in which we exhibit even greater care and understanding of our place among the creatures in the natural world.
** (2007). Ghosts of Gondwana: The history of life in New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing.
Angus (Ed Luhrs)
P.S.: I should also mention the longevity of the bird is unbelievable - by varying accounts between 80 to over 100 years. All the best to the recovery team, and thank you to CrunchBang on reddit, whose comments led me to do some editing. See the reddit thread HERE. He mentions lek breeding - read this article for more detail.