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Thursday, 02 April 2020 12:00

Guest Speaker Sir William Gilbert

Written by C Pirani
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Sir William Gilbert Addresses Conference Sir William Gilbert Addresses Conference

Mr Maui Pomare, Trustee of the World Wildlife Fund-New Zealand addressed the meeting briefly; introduced Sir William Gilbert and commented with pleasure on Sir William's appointment as Chairman and President of the Fund in New Zealand. He outlined briefly the history of the WWF—NZ from early beginnings in 1970/71 to the present.
Sir William Gilbert presented a stimulating, interesting and thought-provoking view of the Kakapo and the Giant Panda, both of which are the major interests of the Fund in New Zealand. (Sir William's comments are detailed elsewhere in this issue of "Flight“)

Sir William concluded his remarks with the comment that these two practical projects are important and worth supporting by New Zealanders, and public relations activity was in hand to publicise the Fund's efforts. He mentioned collaboration with Ducks Unlimited in the sale of a book sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund "Wild Geese of the World". Ducks Unlimited is assisting with promotion and the Fund has undertaken to share proceeds with sales from that source.

Sir William commented on the relationship with WWF members and particularly the support of several thousand children in New Zealand and said he valued the cordial relationship between the Fund and Ducks unlimited as well. He said the WWF was only too happy to come to arrangements from time to time with DU for sharing proceeds of promotion and he looked forward to opportunities to work together where appropriate.

The audience showed its appreciation by acclamation. The President thanked Sir William and announced that Ducks Unlimited had made a donation to the World Wildlife Fund—New Zealand for the Kakapo project.

Sir William Gilbert, President of the World Wildlife Fund—New Zealand addressed the annual conference and in his opening remarks outlined the role of the Fund in New Zealand and said it had tried to avoid getting overly involved in emotional issues and confine activities as far as possible to doing things which would achieve something practical for conservation.

with that in mind the WWF-NZ adopted this year a couple of projects.

"First, a project introduced to us by the Wildlife Service with whom we have a close andcordial association — a project to build a but for the research team on the south end of Stewart Island who are studying Kakapo. Our aim is to raise $ 25,000 which will go a long way towards the total cost which is necessarily high because of the inaccessability and remoteness of the site. Secondly we have set out to make a contribution to the International World Wildlife Fund effort which is being conducted by the Fund around the world. Twenty seven international organisations in conjunction with the Chinese People's Government are endeavouring to secure the survival of the remaining Giant Panda population in Western China. Our belief is that our WWF members and the wider N.Z. public will give generously to this splendid conservation effort.

The Kakapo, a flightless, nocturnal parrot, is endemic to New Zealand. Its many extraordinary features make it perhaps the most unusual of the surviving endemic birds, and the numerous writings and sketches by early Pakeha travellers bear witness to its striking characteristics.
It is not only the heaviest, but also the world's most aberrant member of the parrot family — such that it is scientifically categorised alone in a separate sub—family. A facial disc surrounded by sensory hair—like feathers give it an owl—like face. The moss green and greenish-yellow colouring of the plumage is unique for a nocturnal bird and results in what has been described as a cryptic appearance, the significance of which is not understood.

The Kakapo has a most unusual courtship behaviour involving displays from bowl-like depressions or “courts" and a deep, low amplified booming call that travels for a considerable distance — up to four kilometres. Booming birds (males) have well developed thoracic air sacs which can be inflated to a very large size. In addition to booming, the birds indulge in a range of other calls many of which are related to courtship.

The curious range of courtship, and particularly the booming, is not known in any other parrot or any other New Zealand bird.
Formerly widespread in the North, South and probably Stewart Island, the distribution of the Kakapo is now restricted to a few small areas of Fiordland and in Stewart Island, and its numbers are probably no more than 100 birds. It is now seriously threatened with extinction.

Since 1958 the N.Z. Wildlife Service has conducted numerous expeditions in search of the Kakapo, concentrated mainly in the Milford area of Fiordland, the only area where fresh signs of the bird had been found, but fewer than 10 birds were found in 15 years. The use of helicopters for access to remote areas in 1974 and subsequently has given more positive results. Additional birds have been discovered and important progress has been made in the understanding of the birds' ecology and social behaviour. 

Birds were observed on booming sites at close range, and sound recordings were made of their territorial and communication calls. The most significant progress was, however, achieved in January 1977 when a population comprising at least 30 Kakapo was discovered by a N.Z. Wildlife Service team in a remote part of Stewart Island. This development greatly increased hope that this unique bird can be saved from extinction.

Further impetus has been given by the discovery last year of several female Kakapo — all birds found in Fiordland in the past twenty years seemed to be males. Since then a Kakapo nest with two chicks has been found - believed to be the first this century. The Stewart Island population of Kakapo offers the first, and almost certainly the only, opportunity to study the bird thoroughly, to assess its feeding requirements and habits, and to evaluate the causes of its decline. Such research will provide the vital basis for future management.
It was with keen anticipation that in January of this year I accepted an offer by the Director of the Wildlife Service to visit the Kakapo study area in the southern part of Stewart Island. The only access to the area is by helicopter — half an hour‘s journey from Invercargill - a journey which offered a fine opportunity to view most of the Stewart Island landscape. Apart from the small community in strikingly beautiful Half—Moon Bay, there is virtually no human habitation - none at all in the large forest reserve in the south to which access is strictly controlled.

The dense and beautiful native bush in the north gives way to more stunted vegetation in the south.

The Kakapo area is totally covered by scrub - mainly Manuka, Dracophyllum, Bog Pine and Leatherwood and the surface of the ground is largely moss and spongy peat. Everywhere it is very boggy and one needs a stout pair of boots to keep out the ooze. The area is the catchment of a small river and is intersected with steep gorges which are most difficult to scramble across. In the gorges are taller trees including Rimu, Southern Rata and Beech. In the hinterland there are ranges rising to about 500 metres, with massive outcrops of granite.

Many years ago there was some prospecting for minerals. There are still a few rather pathetic signs of the miners' activities — heaps of tailings from an old sluice, a discarded home—made slasher now deeply encrusted with rust and a few very poor tracks, now largely overgrown. There are of course no roads in such a remote area. The old tracks are still of some help to the tramper who, in the main, must force his way through the scrub and the marshy peatland underfoot. Progress is everywhere difficult and results in badly scratched hands, arms and legs. The climate in this most southerly part of New Zealand is rigorous and verges on the sub—antarctic with high winds, frequent squalls of rain and sleet, grey skies, cold and general unpleasantness.
There are no accommodation huts and the base camp for the team engaged in the study of the Kakapo can only be described as rudimentary - a few tents and tiny shelters in the middle of the ubiquitous peaty swamp. It is a tremendous tribute to the enthusiasm and dedication of the Wildlife Service team and their willing helpers that they continue to carry out their duties in such conditions. The requirement for a hut which will provide tolerable, if basic living conditions, including opportunities to get warm and dry, is indisputable.

Hugh Best, the project leader, believes that there are at least 50 Kakapo in the area. During daylight hours I was shown several clearly defined tracks on ridges, which, together with the accompanying bowls are used by the Kakapo. Late at night Hugh and I tramped for an hour to the vicinity of one of these bowls. As we approached we began to hear the characteristic Kakapo booming sounds - a series of low resonant booms, not loud, but audible for a considerable distance. There would be a sequence of upwards of twenty booms roughly every 3 seconds, each sequence followed by-about 5 minutes silence except, on this occasion, for a rapid sequence of louder "chinging" sounds. It would seem that both the booming and the chinging may be part of the Kakapo courtship ritual. However the significance of these unusual sounds is still not fully understood and is a principal subject for study.

After a lengthy and somewhat arduous tramp the next day to another Kakapo track and bowl system, we were able, through the use of a radio locating device, to find a Kakapo in daylight.

The bird was in the branches of a Rimu tree growing out of the cliffside of a steep gorge. Our expert guide could see the bird, but I had considerable difficulty picking it up. 
Finally I realised that my difficulty came from the near-perfect camouflage offered by the bird's moss green and bronze plumage, and, surprisingly, by its sheer size. I had in my mind's eye a large parrot like a kea or kaka, but instead I saw eventually a giant of a bird, seemingly as big as a goose or turkey. It was surprisingly docile and permitted heavy branches to be moved the better to film him. (We were accompanied by a crew from the TVNZ National History Unit filming a programme in The Wild South series.) As well as his beautiful but subtly coloured plumage, the Kakapo had a powerful beak and strongly developed hands and feet. Its owl-like facial appearance was very noticeable.

 

There are two points I would like to mention at this stage — the particular bird we saw has since been killed - he suffered from the introduction of predation and in that part of the South Island the main risk appears to be coming from feral cats.

This particular bird was killed, as have several others, by a cat. Control of cats is a critical problem and will continue to be for some time to come. Other predators are rats; not a very great number. The cat population, although not great in numbers, is great in magnitude and the Kakapo is no match. However, with the exercise of control, the Kakapo may survive but the work of protecting this species will take considerable time, maybe 10 years or even longer. The other factor which shocked me is that the workers involved in this task, very dedicated people including the Wildlife Service and University people, volunteers etc, are living in little more than a tent camp. This is probably the most rigorous climate in New Zealand and how they do it other than through their motivation that they have to work for the survival of this bird, I just don't know!

The Kakapo is highly unusual, and remarkably little is known about it. This is borne out by the paucity of scientific information about the bird even in the classical writings of the early Pakeha naturalists such as Dieffenbach, Buller, Reischek and Sir George Gray.

A great deal of study over a considerable span of years will be needed before the life cycle of this bird and its many behavioural curiosities can be fully understood. The remote Stewart Island habitat could be the only refuge in which the bird will be able to survive - providing the isolation of the area can be safeguarded and the introduction of further predators, particularly dogs, cats and rats can be prevented. It is in this context that WWF-NZ has undertaken to help the Wildlife Service, whose budget is strictly limited and does not extend beyond limited essentials. We owe it to the dedicated band of scientists in the Wildlife Service to give them help in a practical way."

Sir William went on to discuss the Fund's second priority. WWF-NZ is to make a contribution to the international effort to save the Giant Panda in Western China. He gave details of the early days of the WWF begun by Sir Peter Scott and others in 1961 and displayed large coloured posters of the Giant Panda located at Peking Zoo.
"The Giant Panda was formerly fairly common throughout S.E. Asia but is now found in the wild only in two or three provinces in western China. Natural food is a type of bamboo, and a particular bamboo which flowers once in a hundred years and then dies off. Scientists in China estimate the population in the natural environment has dwindled from 1,000 in 1970 to 300 today and the reason for the decline seems to have been the onset of the flowering cycle in bamboo and secondly reduction in food supply. In the wake of a flowering of bamboo in the area in the mid 19705 Chinese observers found the bodies of more than 140 Giant Pandas which had died of starvation. Ecologists fear that a widespread die—off of bamboo could reduce the Giant Panda numbers to the point where the species might become extinct in the wild.

WWF International has pledged US$ 1 million against a total of some 5 4.5 million needed by the Chinese Government to mount a Panda conservation programme which will include construction of a research and conservation centre in the Wolong Natural Reserve in Sichuan Province. A team of WWF-appointed scientists headed by Dr George Schaller, Director of the Animal Research and Conservation Centre at the New York Zoological Society, is already in Wolong working with top Chinese scientists in an in-depth study of the Panda's requirements for survival in the wild.

Part of WWF's contribution to the Wolong project will be a programme to track Pandas in the wild by fitting them with collars containing radio transmitters. The use of radio telemetry will enable scientists to track animals more easily and thus learn more about their habits and habitat needs. The Chinese are already experimenting with captive breeding programmes and their efforts recently paid off in the birth of the first Giant Panda by artificial insemination. The WWF-China joint programme will intensify research into captive breeding techniques.

The Giant Panda is a shy, solitary animal (he is a big chap, averaging 150 kilograms) inhabiting dense bamboo forests and is so seldom seen that a team of Chinese researchers which has lived in Panda territory since 1978 reports sighting these reclusive creatures on only 16 occasions. The Chinese have established ten special Reserves to protect significant concentrations of Giant Pandas as well as a system of some 65 other natural reserves which provide protection for many species of endangered mammals, birds and plants. The agreement which WWF and China signed last year in preparation for their historic scientific collaboration in Wolong acknowledges the Panda as "not only the precious property of the Chinese people, but also a precious natural heritage of concern to people all over the world". WWF international chose the Giant Panda as its symbol when it was founded in 1961. The Panda has since become the symbol of efforts to protect all the earth's threatened species and the WWF is confident that people everywhere will want to join us in this endeavour to secure the future of the Giant Panda. In New Zealand we would like to make a contribution and have as our objective a figure of $ 1,000 this year and a similar amount next year."

 

 

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