Once a global conservation success story, New Zealand’s black robin in trouble again | New Zealand

Forty years in the past, on a distant rocky island in the Pacific, 800km east of New Zealand, a conservationist got down to deliver the rarest chicken in the world again from the brink of extinction.

Don Merton, carrying a test shirt and shorts, climbed 200 metres up the rockface of Little Mangere Island, a part of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu in the indigenous Moriori language and Wharekauri in Māori), and laid a gentle netted entice for the black robin, also referred to as kakaruia and karure – a tiny endemic chicken that lives as much as its identify, with black plumage, black eyes and a little pointy black beak. Once captured, he gently positioned the chicken inside a wood field, strapped it to his again, descended the cliff and jumped on a boat to the neighbouring island – Mangere, a bigger, extra verdant habitat.

The arrival of pests and settler-colonial farming practices had devastated the robin’s inhabitants in the Chathams. By 1976 there have been simply seven left, residing in a tiny patch of bush on windswept Little Mangere.

Of these, one breeding pair remained: Outdated Blue, the matriarch, and Outdated Yellow. Merton got here up with an thought to save lots of the species – a high-risk determination the place failure may expedite its extinction however success may safe its survival.


With few different choices, and time working out, Merton threw the cube. The crew started amassing their eggs and placing them into different birds’ nests to be raised. After some trial and error, the little tomtit proved to be the most effective foster mother or father. On and on the volunteers, conservationists and scientists labored and the inhabitants has now reached about 280 birds throughout each Mangere and Hokorereoro/Rangatira Islands – all descendants of Outdated Blue and Outdated Yellow.

Round 40 native New Zealand birds have grow to be extinct since people arrived in the nation 1,000 years in the past. With no pure predators, the birds didn’t develop the identical defences as their worldwide cousins, and the introduction of pests devastated their populations. Not solely are birds essential for the ecostystem however they’ve huge cultural significance to indigenous peoples.

The Bay of Waitangi on the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.
Waitangi, the principle settlement on mainland Chatham Islands. As we speak’s 280 black robins are all of the descendants of only one pair. {Photograph}: Westend61/Getty Photos

The robin challenge has been lauded globally as a conservation success story. And for good purpose, on Hokorereoro/Rangatira Island – certainly one of two of the robin’s habitats – the birds are flourishing.

However the work will not be but full. Again on Mangere, conservationists are noticing a troubling development – there are simply 30 birds on the island, and the numbers are reducing.

A sufferer of its personal success?

The challenge’s lead on the Division of Conservation (DOC) Tertia Thurley first volunteered on black robin initiatives in 1986 and labored straight with Merton. However watching the inhabitants decline again in one habitat is “a actual concern”, Thurley says.

“We’re not getting many juveniles, and there have been extra males than females, however as a result of we’re not monitoring them by the breeding season, we don’t know why that’s.”

Thurley feels a sense of urgency has been misplaced concerning the robin’s survival, that maybe it has grow to be a sufferer of its personal success story.

Black robin perching on a twig.
Indigenous conservationists say their native information is vital to making sure the black robin’s survival. {Photograph}: Liz Whitwell

“That [urgency] form of died off as soon as the birds grew to become effectively established on each the islands, which I assume is honest sufficient. It’s solely only in the near past that we’ve been elevating alarm bells across the Mangere inhabitants. They nonetheless are a weak species.”

However that is about to alter, with the primary crew deployed a few weeks in the past to start extra intensive monitoring of the birds.

Katelyn Whittaker-Prendeville was a part of that first cohort. She has simply arrived again on mainland Chatham Islands after a three-week stint on Mangere, “a large rock with a lot of bush on it, the place the chicken life makes it come alive”.

“At night time, it’s so noisy, it’s like they’re having a get together that we didn’t get invited to,” she laughs.

For that interval, she and a workmate frolicked recording robin inhabitants numbers for the pre-breeding season census.

“We solely discovered 9 females. It’s such a small inhabitants, such a small gene-pool and they’re in-bred already.”

Katelyn Whittaker-Prenderville.
Katelyn Whittaker-Prenderville says there are simply 9 feminine black robins among the many inhabitants of 30 on Mangere Island. {Photograph}: Denise Fastier

Whittaker-Prendeville is the primary DOC intern on the island who can be from the native Māori iwi (tribe), Ngāti Mutunga.

“I really feel so privileged … The black robin comes from right here, it’s like our wee reward, our taonga (treasure).”

Time to take some dangers

There are two indigenous populations represented in the Chathams – the unique Moriori settlers, who arrived in the islands 600 to 1,000 years in the past, and the more moderen Māori iwi, Ngāti Mutunga.

Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Belief, which employs Whittaker-Prendeville, mentioned having connection to indigenous information and involvement was essential for the robin’s survival.

“[Indigenous people] could not have a PhD from college, however they’ll learn the indicators, they perceive the seasons, the impression of the setting and the modifications in the setting. You can not beat native information,” the belief’s Gail Amaru says.

Mangere black robin.
Conservationist Susan Thorpe says that in a latest session on the black robin’s survival, no thought was thought-about ‘too loopy’. {Photograph}: Jess MacKenzie

Just lately, the DOC held a session with iwi and imi (Moriori tribe) to debate the black robin restoration programme.

Hokotehi Moriori Belief, which represents Moriori folks, has a heavy give attention to innovation and conservation. Its cultural initiatives supervisor, Susan Thorpe,mentioned the latest session course of was finished extraordinarily effectively, and no thought was thought-about “too loopy”.

She says a enormous quantity of collaboration has occurred with analysis institutes, universities and DOC, however relating to the survival of the robin, it’s now time to take some dangers, simply as Merton did 40 years in the past.

“They used courageous, pioneering, methodology and we’re not doing sufficient of that as of late, with an excessive amount of reporting and never sufficient doing.”

“We really feel that these birds want to maneuver off a nature reserve into wider larger habitats, for their very own effectively being.”

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