ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquita is preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

The wingless, tailless Kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird, but very few New Zealanders have actually seen it, although they sometimes hear it at night.

The conversation begins two hours at nightfall, then resumes two hours before sunrise. They are talking about their home. Kiwis are territorial and threats to their home can result in a clash of legs and claws, resulting in clumps of fallen feathers.

How the Kiwi came to New Zealand

Kiwis date several million years back when petite birds flew into the country. There were few predators and lots of food. Gradually, the birds lost their ability to fly, as they had no need for it. This mutation is common in birds all around the world, according to a study by Natalie Wright, University of Montana. She studied 868 bird species including the kakapo parrot, coots, moorhens and some flightless ducks. She also observed island birds that could fly, but slowly preferred flightlessness, as they didn’t need it.

There are five kiwi species — the brown kiwi bird, the great spotted kiwi, the tokoweka, the rowi, and the little spotted kiwi bird — the smallest, meek and amiable kiwi. Kiwis only exist in New Zealand.

The smallest one has fluffy, thick, shaggy hair apropos for ground living. It also has large whiskers. Its beak is ivory and long. Its eyesight is very poor. At night it navigates by sound and smell. In the daytime, it lives in a dark burrow, or inside a hole in a log, or underneath thick leaves.

Little spotted kiwis are monogamous for decades, producing one or two chicks annually. At night, both par­ents es­cort the chick for pro­tec­tion. If a pair fails to breed, they may separate.

A story of extinction

Scientists say kiwis became nocturnal with the introduction of predators. The kiwis thrived in New Zealand’s main islands until the Polynesians came, bringing kiori (rats), their regular protein source. Rats multiply quickly, and they became the first predator of kiwis.

Some 700 years ago the Maori followed. They cleared forests, planted crops, and brought dogs, which also preyed on the kiwi. But the most harm was done by Europeans who brought dogs, cats, weasels, ferrets, and pigs. Predators are the main threat to all kiwis. Second is habitat destruction, and third is people.

The little spotted kiwi became extinct in New Zealand’s North Island in the late 1800s. By 1912, only five little spotted kiwis were left in the South Island. The country’s government transferred all five little kiwis to Kapiti Island, a sanctuary with no predators, a variety of trees, water, and healthy soil with creatures that live in it, producing a suitable kiwi diet.

In Kapiti Island, the five little spotted kiwis thrived. They are bigger in size because they don’t have much competition for food. At night they come out slowly, using their thin, extended beaks to tap the ground. Their sense of smell is strong, and they feed on earthworms, adult beetles, caterpillars, cicadas, cockchafer beetle larvae, cranefly larvae, flies, moths, spiders, and some small fallen fruit and leaves. When they smell their prey they dig with their talons and beak to soften the ground. Then they insert their beaks and feast.

Kapiti Island can manage a maximum 1,200 little spotted kiwis. When their numbers increase, the overflow is sent to other bird sanctuaries that can accommodate them.

In the mid-1970s, cap­tive breed­ing was at­tempted, but it took more than 14 years before a little spotted kiwi was born and successfully reared. The best results come from providing a safe sanctuary for the kiwi.

Thirty years ago another group of little spotted kiwi birds was becoming extinct on the mainland. As a result, they were sent to three other mainland sanctuaries in offshore islands, multiplying their numbers to 700, with a total population of 1,900 of this species as of 2019.

Every five years, scientists study the smallest kiwi in all their different sanctuaries. They do this by tracking and bringing them to the sunshine. They want to learn why populations grow or why they decrease, which birds are breeding, and the size of its territory. These studies provide vital information needed so the little birds can survive and thrive.

There is still much to learn. Scientists still don’t know when the kiwi becomes sexually mature, or how long they can live. They theorize that they can live for 100 years.

Risk of extinction after population size recovery

It’s a happy story, but also a precautionary tale. In the 1980s, a genetic analysis of several little spotted kiwis that were brought to Long Island revealed that the birds failed to propagate. Not a single chick was born.

The study concluded that all little spotted kiwis in New Zealand came from the first five birds that were brought to Kapiti Island in 1912. Most of them were clearly born from a single couple, indicating that they have a low genetic variance.

The four other kiwi species have rich genetic diversity. But if, like the little spotted kiwi, there is a low genetic diversity, chances of surviving new diseases, environmental stressors, habitat changes, fire, global warming, or human encroachment are minimal and huge numbers of them can be wiped out in one blow. Genetic diversity is fundamental to evolution. It allows an animal to respond to change and continue to survive despite it.

Because of this, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) considers the little spotted kiwi to be recovering, but still at risk. In other words, the little spotted kiwi may risk extinction long after its population size has recovered.

A sudden population drop

This happened to the little birds in Red Mercury Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island from 2011 – 2017. They were considered safe places for the little spotted kiwi because they are predator-free, and have food and water.

However, a population study by the DOC discovered that in the abovementioned islands, there was a sudden 20 percent population drop from 2011 – 2017.

A drought that occurred in 2013 was blamed for the loss. This made scientists realize that the kiwi is far more vulnerable to climate changes than they had initially estimated.

With the 2013 drought, rain fell at only 10% of its normal level. The soil dried up, and the bugs in the soil either died or went deeper into the ground.

The lack of rain left the little spotted kiwi dehydrated, and the absence of the bugs left them starving. Their beaks weren’t long enough to dig deeper into the ground where some bugs may have gone to survive. Because they can’t fly, it was harder for them to find alternative sites for water and bugs.

The drought lasted for 2 ½ months. People in the bird sanctuaries saw the nocturnal kiwis coming out in the daytime, and many died from dehydration despite treatment at Auckland Zoo.

From 2012 to 2017 the number of little spotted kiwis in Tiritiri Matangi Island fell from 80-100 birds down to 60 – 80. From 2011 to 2016, their population on Red Mercury Island fell from 70 – 80, down to 60-70 birds.

Hugh Robertson, a principal science adviser at DOC, said that the Kiwi that survived the drought resumed their normal lives when the rain came back. “The worry would be if the droughts become more and more frequent that these sites may not be able to hold as many birds as expected,” Robertson said.

It is predicted that climate change will raise the occurrence and length of drought in some parts of New Zealand, leading to a decrease in annual rainfall. Animals like the little spotted kiwi will be affected, as, with increased populations, there may be fewer suitable places for them to go to where they will flourish, especially as the climate becomes warmer.

What if there were no little spotted kiwis?

Lit­tle spot­ted kiwis form part of a habitat where it plays a critical role that benefits other species that are vital to the ecosystem. It also is a charis­matic bird species. Through con­ser­va­tion, the little spotted kiwis can continue to play the role of protecting the habitat and boosting eco­tourism.

In terms of the lit­tle bird’s economic impact, this bird is preserved at the expense of log­ging. However, the benefits that are accrued to research, ecotourism, and a rich and diverse ecosys­tem, may outweigh the neg­a­tive ef­fects to the logging industry.

In terms of conservation status, the IUCN says the little spotted kiwi is “Near Threatened”. However, The DOC says it is the most en­dan­gered of all the kiwi species.