The conservationist lifts the top off a little cave made of wood and wire. It is a safe space, a place to molt and feed and grow without fear of predators. Soft baby noises come from within the contraption. The small crowd gathered around the rehabilitation area shudders with anticipation, the excitement is almost palpable. They have been waiting for this moment for over three hours.
Another problem penguins experience is the process of molting. If a penguin doesn’t molt its baby feathers, the feathers fill with water, causing the penguin to sink to the bottom of the bay and drown. Pohatu Penguins provides penguins with safe places to complete the molting process without fear of predators.
Pohatu Penguins has a rehabilitation facility for penguins that need a little extra help. This facility is in Shireen’s backyard, where she can keep a close eye on them.
“What we are doing here is really something major for the penguins,” Navarron said passionately. “These guys love the penguins. They’ve done so much for the penguins for 30 years.”
When the conservation project first began, there were around 500 breeding pairs of the white-flippered penguin in Flea Bay. Now there are around 1,250 breeding pairs. This, Navarron said, is not a conservation victory, but the beginning of a long road to save the New Zealand penguins.
Then, depending on the season, she may walk to the threshold of the incubation lab to change into another pair of white crocs and a white lab coat to peak at eggs that barely fit in her palms.
When she is done with routine checks, she will repeat her shoe change in reverse before heading to her older tenants. For each enclosure she enters, she takes two minutes to slip out of her shoes and slide into a unique pair of rubber boots hoisted on pegs outside the gate.
She does this knowing the time it takes her to change shoes may help protect the endangered birds at Willowbank from harmful bacteria. She does this with the hope that one day the kiwi will have a chance to thrive in New Zealand, like the local people who have used the bird's name to attach themselves to a land threatening its icon.
"My job is to make my job non-existent," Brett said. "I always think we can do more."
Kiwis are flightless, nocturnal birds unique to New Zealand. As New Zealand's national bird, kiwi are seen on merchandise, imprinted on the $1 coin and incorporated into business' logos.
the White-Flippered Penguin
By Elizabeth Elkin
There are 18 species of penguins in the world and three of those species live on mainland New Zealand. As time has progressed, several factors have contributed to the loss of penguins, in some cases, causing them to die out—fishing, human disturbances and new species introduced to New Zealand like stoats. Numerous programs are in place to help protect various species of penguins, but the workers at Pohatu Penguins in Akaroa focus their efforts on the species native to the neighboring Flea Bay: the white-flippered penguin.
Navarron said that between 30 and 60 years ago, the white-flippered penguin population dropped dramatically for three reasons. First, the Māori use their meat for food.
“These guys are called the ‘sweet penguins’ by the Māori,” he said. “Not sweet cute, sweet tasty.”
Second, the white-flippered penguins prefer the cover of forest, Navarron explained. When there’s no forest to take shelter in, the penguins crawl under houses to nest and breed. From August to November, these penguins are not welcome guests to people trying to sleep. From 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., they chirp, whistle and squawk.
“It can be really disturbing,” Navarron explained sadly. “So what the locals do is they release their cats and train dogs to kill these poor little guys.
The third reason the white-flippered penguins are dying, as with many creatures native to New Zealand, is introduced predators. The European stoat was brought to the country to kill rabbits. Stoats are small, about the size of a ferret but with a black tail, and deadly to penguins. One stoat can kill over five penguins every night.
“They are doing it exactly like cats, killing for pleasure,” he elaborated. “It’s just for fun. They dig two holes into the neck of the penguin, drink a bit of blood and let the penguin die.”
Shireen, owner and founder of the business, decided to do something about it, Navarron explained. She laid traps out for the stoats all around Flea Bay. She checked the traps every three to five days and found five to 15 stoats every time.
“The population was way too big and they were destroying the penguins,” Navarron said.
After several years, the Department of Conservation realized that Shireen was right, Navarron said. They began helping Pohatu Penguins by starting a trapping program in the bay. However, as time has gone on and fewer stoats have been found in the bay, the trappers haven’t wanted to keep up with the program, he explained.
Kevin Parthonnaud, another Pohatu Penguins conservationist, said conservation is particularly important in New Zealand due to introduced species like the stoat.
the New zealand kiwi
By Elayne Smith
To book a tour and see the penguins, visit pohatu.co.nz. The full scenic nature safari is $90 (U.S. $63.10) per adult and four hours long, featuring a scenic drive to the Pohatu Marine Reserve, penguin monitoring during breeding season, a walk through the Tutakahikura Scenic Bush Reserve, views of the Bank Peninsula Tree Weta, a stop at a working sheep farm, a drive to the Akaroa head reserve and lighthouse, food and beverages. Adventurous guests can also take one of the three sea-kayaking tours, ranging in price from $55-$90 (U.S. $38.60–$63.10.)
plan A visit
“If you want to picture New Zealand as advertised, as green and wild, we need to get rid of all the things that have been introduced,” he maintained.
Cameras at the ready, they wait one more minute.
He reaches into the container and pulls out a little ball of white, blue and grey fluff. Its chubby body fits neatly into his two hands, its little beak is no bigger than a long fingernail. The crowd sighs with content.
“We try to give these guys a second chance,” Benoit Navarron, wildlife conservationist at Pohatu Penguins, said.
Bethany Brett changes her shoes 10 times a day.
Brett arrives to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in the outskirts of Christchurch in her own pair of casual work boots. Her first stop may be to change into a pair of crocs and don a blue lab coat to check on the newest members under her care.
plan a visit
To see kiwi in Queenstown and visit the Kiwi Birdlife Park, you can walk two minutes from downtown and enter a secluded oasis in the middle of the city. Entry tickets for adults are $48 (U.S. $33), tickets for children aged 5 to 14 are $23 (U.S. $16) and children under 5 get in for free. The tickets are valid all day on a come and go basis, and even feature some rollover benefits for the following day. To learn more and see the kiwi feeding times, visit their website:
"They're ugly, but they're cute," Brett said with a grin.
Brett works as the head kiwi husbandry officer for Willowbank, which houses 50 different types of animals and up to a dozen kiwis.
Only 68,000 kiwis remain in the wild compared to the millions that once existed, according to New Zealand's Department of Conservation. The birds experience an annual 2 percent population decline—about 20 per week.
Raising kiwi to survive
Two minutes away from the downtown bustle of Queenstown is an oasis for native wildlife. Walking through the entrance to Kiwi Birdlife Park is like stepping into a forest in the middle of a city.
Willowbank is partnered with the national effort, Operation Nest Egg, to increase the kiwi survival rate. The operation coordinates with different wildlife reserves and conservation centers to take eggs and chicks from their burrows and raise them in captivity to increase their chance of survival.
The flightless birds adapted to live in an island country with no native mammal predators. Once settlers introduced possums, rats, ferrets and stoats, the kiwi's natural instinct to stand still in camouflage as it would against aerial predators offered little protection.
"You're looking at survivalists," Brett said. "I think that is probably the best word to use for an animal that we've just [introduced to] the worst predator they could possibly have, but they're still around."
Helping reshape the land for native wildlife
Due to the decline of its native wildlife, New Zealand has funded efforts to conserve its animals by declaring a goal of being predator free by 2050. The conservation department has paired up with the charity, Kiwis for kiwi. The umbrella organization monitors efforts from local communities and supports accredited research centers.
Michelle Impey did not grow up a Kiwi, but she devoted herself to saving the nocturnal bird after falling in love with New Zealand and its wildlife. Impey is the executive director of Kiwis for kiwi, overseeing a two-person staff and handful of part-time workers. She took charge of the charity in 2005 and helped transition it into its current brand.
"Kiwis are a cooky, charismatic bird," Impey said grasping in the air for the right words as she chuckled. "Kiwis are the poster child for environmental protection.”
Many of the issues kiwis face are similar struggles for other native wildlife. Impey said reducing predators and maintaining habitats not only aids kiwi, but other animals and plants in the ecosystem.
“The less charismatic species benefit from the efforts done for the kiwi,” Impey said. “It’s hard to get people to rally around saving a skink [lizard], but the national bird makes more of a statement."
People help kiwis in different ways, from putting predator traps in their backyards to mapping kiwi locations. Impey explained that a huge threat to the native bird is not just the wild predators that the government is trying to reduce, but people's dogs.
"There's an ignorance of the damage dogs can do and a denial that it would be your pet," Impey said. Since Kiwi carry their vital organs in the front of their bodies, they are very vulnerable when crushed in a dog’s jaw. Keeping pets indoors or in a fenced area can help.
A lot of resources have been put into predator-free areas where kiwis can repopulate. The goal is to take kiwis from these areas after they have multiplied and reintroduce them throughout the nation, Impey explained. These predator-free areas include fenced sanctuaries where the land has returned to its native state or offshore islands isolated from mainland predators.
“Something is going to die,” Impey said without blinking. “We have the chance to preserve the natives and that's what we are doing. It is no less cruel to let the introduced ones wipe out the natives, you know, than it is for us to intervene and try to take out the introduced ones."
"You're looking at survivalists. I think that's probably the best word to use for an animal that we've just [introduced to] the worst predator they could possibly have, but they're still around."
Paul Kavanagh is the manager for the family-owned birdlife park that turned the land from a junkyard to a sanctuary in 1986 and currently houses 23 native species.
"We try to instill hope," Kavanagh said. "It's important people know the severity and how endangered our species are, but we also have to instill hope and we need to make people feel like they can still make a difference."
At Kiwi Birdlife Park, there are two nocturnal houses keeping the birds behind glass, limiting human interaction. Visitors to the park can visit the kiwi sanctuary during the day and see them via dim, red lighting. About the size of a chicken, a kiwi will use its beak almost like a cane as it pecks the earth and bobs along exploring the ground.
"Kiwi look strange and they are unusual, but they are amazing at what they do," Kavanagh said. "It's just that they are dealing with threats they shouldn't be dealing with."
In the end, these efforts are not just about the kiwi, he said, but New Zealand's landscape as a whole. So many plants, birds including penguins and other animals face situations outside of nature's plan for them. While a lot of these issues stemmed from past human mistakes, he said there is still a lot of hope for what can be done.
"People need to be empowered and want to save nature," he said. "Nature finds a way; you just have to give it a hand."
- Bethany Brett
Saving the Birds
The white-flippered penguin and kiwi share common enemies and struggles. The Department of Conservation, along with different charities and wildlife reserves, are fighting to help save these birds from extinction.
Story by Elizabeth Elkin + Elayne Smith
Photos by Jonathan Norris + Mary-Margaret Schmidt + Elayne Smith