Once a global conservation success story, New Zealand’s black robin in trouble again

1 year ago 98

Forty years ago, connected a distant rocky land successful the Pacific, 800km eastbound of New Zealand, a conservationist acceptable retired to bring the rarest vertebrate successful the satellite backmost from the brink of extinction.

Don Merton, wearing a cheque garment and shorts, climbed 200 metres up the rockface of Little Mangere Island, portion of the Chatham Islands (Rēkohu successful the indigenous Moriori connection and Wharekauri successful Māori), and laid a brushed netted trap for the achromatic robin, besides known arsenic kakaruia and karure – a tiny endemic vertebrate that lives up to its name, with achromatic plumage, achromatic eyes and a small pointy achromatic beak. Once captured, helium mildly placed the vertebrate wrong a woody box, strapped it to his back, descended the cliff and jumped connected a vessel to the neighbouring land – Mangere, a larger, much verdant habitat.

The accomplishment of pests and settler-colonial farming practices had devastated the robin’s colonisation successful the Chathams. By 1976 determination were conscionable 7 left, surviving successful a tiny spot of bush connected windswept Little Mangere.

Of those, 1 breeding brace remained: Old Blue, the matriarch, and Old Yellow. Merton came up with an thought to prevention the taxon – a high-risk determination wherever nonaccomplishment could expedite its extinction but occurrence could unafraid its survival.


With fewer different options, and clip moving out, Merton threw the dice. The squad began collecting their eggs and putting them into different birds’ nests to beryllium raised. After immoderate proceedings and error, the little tomtit proved to beryllium the champion foster parent. On and connected the volunteers, conservationists and scientists worked and the colonisation has present reached astir 280 birds crossed some Mangere and Hokorereoro/Rangatira Islands – each descendants of Old Blue and Old Yellow.

Around 40 autochthonal New Zealand birds person go extinct since humans arrived successful the state 1,000 years ago. With nary earthy predators, the birds did not make the aforesaid defences arsenic their planetary cousins, and the instauration of pests devastated their populations. Not lone are birds important for the ecostystem but they person tremendous taste value to indigenous peoples.

The Bay of Waitangi connected  the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.
Waitangi, the main colony connected mainland Chatham Islands. Today’s 280 achromatic robins are each the descendants of conscionable 1 pair. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

The robin task has been lauded globally arsenic a conservation occurrence story. And for bully reason, connected Hokorereoro/Rangatira Island – 1 of 2 of the robin’s habitats – the birds are flourishing.

But the enactment is not yet complete. Back connected Mangere, conservationists are noticing a troubling inclination – determination are conscionable 30 birds connected the island, and the numbers are decreasing.

A unfortunate of its ain success?

The project’s pb astatine the Department of Conservation (DOC) Tertia Thurley archetypal volunteered connected achromatic robin projects successful 1986 and worked straight with Merton. But watching the colonisation diminution again successful 1 situation is “a existent concern”, Thurley says.

“We’re not getting galore juveniles, and determination person been much males than females, but due to the fact that we’re not monitoring them done the breeding season, we don’t cognize wherefore that is.”

Thurley feels a consciousness of urgency has been mislaid astir the robin’s survival, that possibly it has go a unfortunate of its ain occurrence story.

Black robin perching connected  a twig.
Indigenous conservationists accidental their section cognition is cardinal to ensuring the achromatic robin’s survival. Photograph: Liz Whitwell

“That [urgency] benignant of died disconnected erstwhile the birds became good established connected some the islands, which I conjecture is just enough. It’s lone conscionable precocious that we’ve been raising alarm bells astir the Mangere population. They inactive are a susceptible species.”

But this is astir to change, with the archetypal squad deployed a fewer weeks agone to statesman much intensive monitoring of the birds.

Katelyn Whittaker-Prendeville was portion of that archetypal cohort. She has conscionable arrived backmost connected mainland Chatham Islands aft a three-week stint connected Mangere, “a large stone with a batch of bush connected it, wherever the vertebrate beingness makes it travel alive”.

“At night, it’s truthful noisy, it’s similar they are having a enactment that we didn’t get invited to,” she laughs.

For that period, she and a workmate spent clip signaling robin colonisation numbers for the pre-breeding play census.

“We lone recovered 9 females. It’s specified a tiny population, specified a tiny gene-pool and they are in-bred already.”

Katelyn Whittaker-Prenderville.
Katelyn Whittaker-Prenderville says determination are conscionable 9 pistillate achromatic robins among the colonisation of 30 connected Mangere Island. Photograph: Denise Fastier

Whittaker-Prendeville is the archetypal DOC intern connected the land who is besides from the section Māori iwi (tribe), Ngāti Mutunga.

“I consciousness truthful privileged … The achromatic robin comes from here, it’s similar our wee gift, our taonga (treasure).”

Time to instrumentality immoderate risks

There are 2 indigenous populations represented successful the Chathams – the archetypal Moriori settlers, who arrived successful the islands 600 to 1,000 years ago, and the much caller Māori iwi, Ngāti Mutunga.

Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust, which employs Whittaker-Prendeville, said having transportation to indigenous cognition and engagement was important for the robin’s survival.

“[Indigenous people] whitethorn not person a PhD from university, but they tin work the signs, they recognize the seasons, the interaction of the situation and the changes successful the environment. You cannot bushed section knowledge,” the trust’s Gail Amaru says.

Mangere achromatic  robin.
Conservationist Susan Thorpe says that successful a caller consultation connected the achromatic robin’s survival, nary thought was considered ‘too crazy’. Photograph: Jess MacKenzie

Recently, the DOC held a consultation with iwi and imi (Moriori tribe) to sermon the achromatic robin betterment programme.

Hokotehi Moriori Trust, which represents Moriori people, has a dense absorption connected innovation and conservation. Its taste projects manager, Susan Thorpe,said the caller consultation process was done highly well, and nary thought was considered “too crazy”.

She says a immense magnitude of collaboration has occurred with probe institutes, universities and DOC, but erstwhile it comes to the endurance of the robin, it is present clip to instrumentality immoderate risks, conscionable arsenic Merton did 40 years ago.

“They utilized brave, pioneering, methodology and we’re not doing capable of that these days, with excessively overmuch reporting and not capable doing.”

“We consciousness that these birds request to determination disconnected a quality reserve into wider bigger habitats, for their ain good being.”