Aiding endangered offspring

Kakapo Auckland ZooOne thing zoos are very good at is neonatal care – a critical function when it comes to species conservation. The degree of intervention depends on the species and situation. In some cases, newborns need 24-hour care to ensure their survival. Others simply need a predator-free haven to survive.

Kakapo chick Heather One would never have made it without intensive intervention by a team of dedicated vets and nurses at Auckland Zoo.

The kakapo, one of the rarest and heaviest parrots in the world, is endemic to New Zealand. These flightless, nocturnal birds breed only every three to four years, with breeding depending on fruiting of rimu and other native New Zealand berry-producing trees.

With less than 130 in the world, kakapo are listed as critically endangered. The biggest threat appears to be predation by rats. Of 21 chicks born between 1981 and 1994, nine were likely killed by rats, although it is difficult to rule out the possibility that some of these may have died and subsequently been eaten by rats.

In 1990, a Kakapo recovery program – a partnership between the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), New Zeland Aluminum Smelters and Forest and Bird – was established to ensure the survival of the species. Kakapo were transferred to several islands including Little Barrier Island (Hauturu o Toi), Codfish Island and Anchor Island, in a number of successful translocations.

One of those birds is Heather, now 33 years old. She was moved to Little Barrier Island where she lives with five adult males and three other females. This breeding season she produced two female chicks – Heather One and her sister, Heather Two (they will be given official names later).

But things don’t always go smoothly. Heather One, the first chick to hatch since Kakapo were reintroduced to Little Barrier Island in 2012, hatched on March 12. By the age of ten days she was critically ill. It is believed that a combination of mother Heather’s inability to obtain enough ripe natural food, together with harsh weather conditions associated with Cyclone Lusi, almost killed the chick.

At one point the wind, blowing around 60 knots, prevented rangers from viewing the chicks in the nest for two days. By the time they arrived, Heather One was extremely underweight, at just 40 grams, struggling to breath and failing to grow. But with so few of her conspecifics remaining, her survival is critical.

Concerned about her condition, ranger Leigh Joyce collected Heather One from the nest and stayed up all night watching the chick.

“She was a tiny ball of fluff in my hand,” Joyce said. “We spent the night monitoring her and getting some fluid into her. Luckily she picked up, we thought ‘great, we’re not going to lose her tonight’”.

But Heather One needed intensive care. In an indication of just how important this bird is, she was flown by helicopter to Auckland Zoo.

There she was diagnosed with pneumonia. Heather One was placed in an incubator, given supplemental oxygen and antibiotics, and crop-fed by carers.

The latter involved inducing a feeding response by stroking the bird’s beak and inside of her mouth before inserting the crop needle. The chick had no problem feeding.

She spent three weeks in an incubator before being moved into a makeshift nest in a crate.

“It’s incredible to see how she’s pulled through in the five weeks she’s been here,” Auckland Zoo’s senior vet James Chatteron said. “It was touch and go for a while, but kakapo are incredibly hardy birds.”

But the outcome would have been very different without the availability of extensive resources.

“We’ve had the combined skills of our vet team, keepers with kakapo experience, the expertise of DOC’s Hauturu kakapo ranger Leigh Joyce, and invaluable support from the South-Island based Kakapo Recovery team providing Heather One with around-the-clock care,” he said. “It’s really been an amazing team effort to get her health back on track.”

By this time she weighed almost 1kg – close to average for her age – becoming more active and vocal each day.

Following her treatment, Heather One was transferred to the zoo’s Invercargill facility to complete her hand-rearing and integration with another two kakapo chicks, prior to their transfer to Codfish Island.

Auckland Zoo’s veterinary department, housed within the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, continues to provide veterinary care for Kakapo Recovery Group. Last year the Zoo treated two sick adult Kakapo, enabling both to be returned to the wild.

“These cases are perfect examples of conservation medicine in action at Auckland Zoo,” said Chatterton.

It is hoped that through the breeding program the population of kakapo can be increased so that at least 150 females will be present at three different sites across the country.

DOCS Kakapo Recovery Program manager Denise Vercoe said that the fact that breeding occurred so soon following translocation of a small number of birds to Little Barrier Island is a positive sign.

“The island could play a significant role in the long-term security of the kakapo population,”

Meanwhile across the Tasman Sea, a seven-month old koala joey made her public debut at Taronga Zoo. The joey is named Bai’yali after the D’harawal Aboriginal word for stringybark – a species of eucalyptus preferred by koalas – in honour of NAIDOC week.

Bai’yali is the first of three koala joeys expected to emerge at the Zoo this breeding season. According to keeper Laura Jones, new mother Tilly had taken to her role.

“She’s proving to be a very relaxed and nurturing mum,” Jones said. “She’s doing all the right things and the joey is thriving.”

Thanks to Bai’yali’s health and Tilly’s excellent mothering, the Zoo has taken a hands-off approach with the joey, simply providing a safe and suitable habitat.

Koala populations in some areas of Australia remain under threat largely from urban development and habitat disruption and destruction. Extinction of local populations has already been documented. Data from the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) suggests there may be as few as 43,000 koalas in the wild.

An estimated 80 per cent of koala habitat in Australia exists on privately owned land. For this reason, the AKF is lobbying for legislation to protect koala habitat and is calling on the Government to provide incentives for private landowners to manage habitats for koalas and other wildlife species.

The breeding season occurs between August and February – a period which often coincides with increased activity (including fighting between males) and increased stress. In the wild, females generally start breeding from around three to four years of age, producing up to one offspring each year if conditions are right.

Gestation is brief – just 35 days. Joeys measure around 2cm long at birth and weigh around 1 gram. At this point they are hairless, earless and blind. They feed from nipples in the mother’s pouch during this period, beginning to emerge from the pouch at the age of six months.

Tilly’s younger sister River is carrying a male joey which has not yet emerged from the pouch, although he may do so shortly.

“He still just fits inside mum’s pouch,” Jones said.

Bai’yali continues to reach important milestones, including gaining weight and developing her juvenile pelt. She has begun to sample eucalyptus leaves but is expected to feed from Tilly for at least three months.

Anne Fawcett

Pictures Auckland Zoo and Taronga Zoo