A male kiwi released in March, named Hohaia after Holden Hohaia, a Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui leader involved in the project (Photo: Esme Stark)
A male kiwi released in March, named Hohaia after Holden Hohaia, a Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui leader involved in the project (Photo: Esme Stark)

SocietyJune 17, 2024

How kiwi returned to Wellington

A male kiwi released in March, named Hohaia after Holden Hohaia, a Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui leader involved in the project (Photo: Esme Stark)
A male kiwi released in March, named Hohaia after Holden Hohaia, a Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui leader involved in the project (Photo: Esme Stark)

In just a single generation, Wellington went from a native bird wasteland to a city where kiwi wander nonchalantly into people’s backyards.

The Māori names of Wellington’s landscape reflect a place of bird abundance. Mt Kaukau was Tarikākā, the place of kākā. Karori is a transliteration of Kaharore, the place of many snares. The ridge on Te Ahumairangi Hill was Paehuia, the place of huia. But European settlement reshaped the landscape. Bush was razed, mustelids were introduced, and the hills fell silent.

Now, 180 years later, kiwi calls are again ringing out on Wellington’s wild western hills. Last month, 12 more kiwi were released into the Mākara wind farm Meridian West Wind, the latest of the 140 kiwi released by the Capital Kiwi Project, a collaboration between iwi, landowners and the community.

Looking out over the 24,000-hectare stretch containing 4,600 Capital Kiwi traps, the project’s founder, Paul Ward, and conservation specialist Jeff Hall tell me the “almost miraculous” story of how Wellington welcomed back our national bird. 

A view of Capital Kiwi’s trap network from Terawhiti station (Photo: Esme Stark)

Wellington was a native bird wasteland when Hall and Ward were growing up in the 1990s. “You were lucky to see a fantail/pīwakawaka,” Ward says. In 1999, a predator-proof fence was erected around the city’s decommissioned reservoir, creating Zealandia. Arriving back from overseas in the mid-2000s, Ward recalls coming across a kākā in Aro Valley. Today, kākā sightings are common across the city. Back then, it was “like seeing a takahē roaming around the lawn at parliament”. 

He was inspired to put out the welcome mat for these manu spilling over Zealandia’s fence, and co-founded Polhill Protectors (later renamed Ngā Kaimanaaki o Te Waimapihi), which supported saddlebacks/tieke nesting in Aro Valley. They quickly realised predator control wasn’t enough. They needed to help reconnect people with manu. “We had phone calls saying ‘my dog’s brought in a funny-looking blackbird’ and it was a tieke,” he says. 

Thankfully, the birds did their own sales and marketing. “Mākara Peak and Waimapihi are the only places in the world where you can go mountain biking with kākā and tieke, so asking for koha for that experience was pretty easy,” says Ward. With predator-free groups popping up across the city, trapping became the pastime of mountain bikers, trail runners, families, grannies and schools – not just Department of Conservation or council rangers. Wellington is now home to the largest wild kākā population in the North Island.

After the success with kākā, about eight years ago Ward and others started asking the big question: “what about kiwi?”. Conservation veterans Paul ‘Scratch’ Jansen and Darren Peters came on board. They’d spent their careers saving New Zealand bird species from the brink of extinction with DOC, and gave the project confidence to go for a big, bold move.

Kiwi have a few natural advantages when it comes to warding off predators, Ward explains. A kiwi egg is almost the same size as an emu’s or ostrich’s, far too large and round for most predators’ mouths to puncture. In most kiwi species, the adult male protects the egg in the burrow during incubation. Kiwi are aided by their “dinosaur claws” that can fend off just about anything except for dogs and ferrets. “You don’t name your rugby league team and armed forces for a bird that’s not tough and feisty,” Ward says. The kiwi’s long lifespan is also in their corner. Often living as long as 50 years, kiwi only need to replace themselves once or more over their lifetime to grow a population.

The real danger zone for kiwi is the first 40 weeks or so after hatching until the bird reaches “fight weight” – the magic number of 1.2kg when kiwi can fend off most predators. Discovering “fight weight” was a hard-won lesson in kiwi conservation circles, learned from efforts in the 1990s when transmitters and trail cameras were placed on chicks.

“We learned that in areas with no pest control, virtually 90-100% of chicks were being eaten before they could defend themselves. The number one perpetrator was the stoat,” says Ward. There were some areas conservationists thought were cultivating kiwi populations, but in reality only the older birds were surviving. “It was a bit like forests of old growth trees with no saplings coming up.”

Over the next 25 years, conservationists learned the recipe to look after kiwi. As Ward puts it: “either uplift the egg and raise the chick in a predator-free context, or do predator control in situ”. The Capital Kiwi Project has chosen the latter. It’s less intensive, less expensive and, from an iwi perspective, maintains whakapapa links between chicks and parents. 

But finding land was no mean feat. Although DOC looks after a third of the country, less than 7% of it has thorough predator control. “Wide-ranging birds like kiwi, kākā, tūī, kārearea, and kererū don’t respect property boundaries and neither do the pests that threaten them, so if we were going to return them to live their wild lives, we needed to do it at scale.”

Paul unfurls a map of Capital Kiwi’s trap network. At 24,000 hectares, it is larger than Abel Tasman National Park, and mostly on private land. Starting in 2017, the team approached landowners including the council, Meridian Energy, and Terawhiti Station (a 5,000-hectare farm near Mākara). 

Getting permission from landowners to place and service traps on the land wasn’t the hard part. “It was usually an immediate yes to the question ‘do you want kiwi back on your land?’” says Ward. “The fact we were locals and weren’t wearing official uniforms was huge in terms of earning trust to have the gate open.”

But the first question from property owners was always the same: “how much is this going to cost?”. Capital Kiwi secured funding from a range of sources including DOC, Save the Kiwi, Predator Free 2050, and private philanthropy. 

Paul Ward and Jeff Hall, with a map of Capital Kiwi’s trap network (Photo: Esme Stark)

The project started building relationships with mana whenua, specifically Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui. “If you had to say there’s three pou the project stands on,” says Ward, “it’s iwi, both in mana whenua and the iwi who gift the kiwi, our landowners, and communities. It’s a mangled metaphor, but it’s like a tripod, if you pull one of those legs off, the thing falls over.”

Most of the 4,600 traps were deployed by early 2019 and, over the next three years, Capital Kiwi “smashed” stoat numbers to a level that gave DOC and iwi confidence kiwi could return. By 2021, Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui were leading conversations with other iwi about gifting these precious manu. The first birds came from Ngati Hinewai, arriving from Ōtorohanga Kiwi House in November 2022. Others came from the Save the Kiwi breeding programme at Maungatautari Sanctuary Mountain, under the manaakitanga of Ngaati Korokī Kahukura. 

Tawa Hill, where the first kiwi were released in November 2022 (Photo: Esme Stark)

The first translocations were a success. “There is an element of risk involved, but the first health checks showed the kiwi were putting on significant weight,” says Hall. “It was remarkable given our first kiwi were being hand-fed every day in captivity. We even gave them ‘packed lunches’ for their first night”. Kiwi soon started breeding; the first chicks being found in November 2023, and reaching fighting weight in May this year. 

“We’ve shown we can grow large populations of kiwi by allowing those chicks to live their lives as wildly and freely as possible in an unfenced environment out on the hills,” says Ward. “We’ve got around 140 kiwi out here, probably more given we’re only monitoring one fifth of them (the transmitters come off after a year). If you’d told me we’d have that many birds in 2024 and have kiwi on the edges of Broadmeadows and Karori, that would have been a blue skies scenario for the project.” 

Paul Ward and Jeff Hall surveying the landscape (Photo: Esme Stark)

We’re never going back to pre-colonisation landscapes, although native bush regenerates quickly when allowed to.  “A euphemistic word for this landscape is ‘modified’,” says Ward. Despite that, “Wellington city is showing that this is a place where native birds can thrive.” 

Urban landscapes represent a combination of people plus protection. Hall, a former DOC ranger, looks across the landscape and says, “if this was on a conservation island like the ones I’ve worked on, the idea of establishing a trapping network would be crushing. But we have people power in the city. Where people are, we can look after species. There’s going to be challenges with people too – dogs, cars, cats – but we don’t have any choice. Let’s change the behaviour”.

Keep going!