Visitors Flock to Off-Shore Bird Sanctuary

Kapiti Island is a haven for some of New Zealand's endangered wildlife, including the rare kaka parrot

ON this tiny island nature reserve, it's not easy to give Conservation Officer Peter Daniel the complete attention he's asking for.

Our group of 30 visitors to Kapiti Island is a bit distracted by the large olive-brown parrots circling over his head, landing on his shoulders, and whizzing off screeching.

The parrots, called kaka, inhabit the island in large numbers and are practically tame, because they are conditioned to humans, and because the predators that once plagued them are now almost gone.

Kapiti is one segment of a multifaceted, long-range plan by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) to restore native bird populations.

An island six miles long, half a mile wide, and a half-hour boat ride from the Wellington coast, Kapiti is one of few relatively accessible island nature reserves. It provides an opportunity to see birds that are rare or absent on the mainland.

This group of school children, naturalists, and reporters has come to the island for an educational visit. Mr. Daniel, the barrel-chested conservation officer who wants our attention, briefs us on the history of Kapiti and gives the ground rules for exploring it. We tramp up to the summit, bird-watching along the way.

One high point is a trough Daniel has filled with sugar water, where 40 to 50 kaka swoop in and out, nudging other birds aside.

They land on our heads and shoulders, and delicately pick bits of cheese we were given, out of our hands. They're not so delicate when their talons grip our hair or when they give us a few wet surprises, so after a bit we pull the hoods of our windbreakers over our heads.

The day is blustery and cold, and Daniel invites three reporters into his island home for tea. While we're waiting for the kettle to boil, a bellbird darts in through the tiny bird door he's made in a window and starts to sip sugar water. The bird's tongue hangs outside its bill because of an injury. ``I don't know how it stays alive,'' he marvels, ``but it seems to be doing all right.''

The house is surrounded by a nearly deafening chorus of bird calls. ``It sounds like an orchestra,'' says Pam Graham, a New Zealand reporter.

``It's amazing to see this when you think that they're extinct on the North Island and to see how they relate to people. You can only understand when you see it,'' says Jim Kidson, senior media officer for DOC, who has accompanied us. ``This is an educational opportunity in what we've lost and what we're trying to rebuild.''

Scientists say that kaka parrots could become extinct on the mainland if nothing were done to save them.

Kapiti was first settled by Maoris, then whalers, and then farmers. Each group brought animals that preyed on the birds. Maoris brought the kiori (Polynesian rat) and the kuri (dog) to New Zealand, both implicated in the destruction of 11 species.

Europeans introduced sheep, goats, pigs, deer, cattle, and cats. They brought rabbits for game, then stoats, weasels, and ferrets to control the rabbits.

The Norway rat arrived via the whaling ships. And the Australian brush-tailed possum was introduced for the fur trade.

The impact of these introduced species on bird populations has been devastating. Nearly 60 percent of New Zealand birds were flightless or nearly flightless, easy prey for these fleet-footed predators.

Scientists say New Zealand has lost about 49 species - about half its varieties of land birds - since humans first set foot here. The animals ate not only the birds and their eggs but the vegetation the birds needed as well.

In 1897, the government, under pressure from naturalists, established Kapiti as a preserve for the flora and fauna of New Zealand. Cats, deer, goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, and dogs were eradicated from the reserve. Domestic stock were removed and other animals were shot or trapped.

Between February 1980 and November 1986, 22,500 possums were removed from Kapiti, using systematic trapping, poison, and dogs, the first successful possum-eradication program.

Kapiti acts as both a bird sanctuary and a reservoir for other islands. Once a species has reached safe numbers, breeding pairs are airlifted to propagate on other islands. Birds that have been brought back from the threat of extinction include saddleback, little spotted kiwi, stitchbird, kokako, and takahae.

``In this unique setting, we can turn the clock back,'' Daniel says. ``We have ancient species we can preserve. And the potential is great for saving other endangered species.''

The DOC has two dozen programs going on in various parts of the country. New Zealand is considered a world leader in island restoration and is using its experience to help other countries.

Mauritius, with New Zealand's help was able to eradicate the rabbit population from its prime reserve of Round Island. The plan was masterminded by DOC endangered-species expert Don Merton, who saved the Chatham Island black robin from extinction when the species was down to its last breeding pair.

Visiting Kapiti's friendly birds is quietly popular among New Zealanders, or Kiwis, as they call themselves. But only 50 people a day are allowed to go to the island, and the wait used to be a year for weekends and six months for other times. Bookings are now taken three months ahead. Kapiti has an average of 4,500 visitors a year.

Daniel says his prime motive in talking to visitors used to be protection, but now it's educational, ``the best form of protection.'' He's only had a few troublemakers, like obsessed birders who tramp through long grass to tick off exotic species.

Then there was the man from New Zealand who discombobulated nesting takahae by taping their calls and playing them back to them.

``I had serious words with the guy,'' Daniel says.

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