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How Smart Transmitters & Drones Are Saving New Zealand’s Kakapo Bird From Going Extinct

How Smart Transmitters & Drones Are Saving New Zealand’s Kakapo Bird From Going Extinct

Yeshey Rabzyor Yolmo

When nature failed, technology came to the rescue of the Kakapo (pronounced caw-caw-poe), a flightless, owl-like parrot who was threatened with extinction at the hand of the predatory land mammals like rats, stoats (short-tailed weasel) and possums whose collective efforts to keep themselves fed dangerously lowered the Kakapo population. It got so worse that about 40 years ago, only 18 birds could be found, all of whom were males. Now, with the discovery of a new population in a location not explored before brought hope as this group consisted of a female Kakapo.

Since then, conservation efforts have been able to resurrect Kakapo’s dwindling numbers – from mere 18 to over 200. This year saw a record low in the mortality rate of Kakapo chicks. Out of the 86 born this year, only 16 were lost. This was a promising sign because this year’s harvest was the highest, beating the previous high of 32 by more than double. 

The strength of a Kakapo’s vitality is amazing. Their lifespan ranges from 60 – 90 years and they only mate once every  2 – 4 years when the Rima tree bear fruit. Aspergillosis (an airborne respiratory infection) claimed the lives of 18 Kakapos who are prone to this illness. Couple that with the overwhelming/unmanageable pest population, conservation has been a mammoth task.



Technology To The Rescue

The first thing was to relocate the birds to a new location, to the 4 infestation free islands off the New Zealand coast. Each bird is fitted with a smart transmitter carefully tucked under its wings in a small backpack. It transmits information regarding a Kakapo’s whereabouts, its activities during the day (and night as Kakapos are nocturnal), vital sign readings during its mating sessions and the information of its partner. Each nest is also fitted with a transmitter which records a mother’s comings and goings. 

Feeding stations are placed at specific locations around the island which have been designed to respond to particular transmissions. The feeding stations become inaccessible to birds for whom the supply is not meant for. They are also equipped with a scale to monitor a Kakapo’s weight. 

Once a female lays an egg, the egg is replaced with a 3D printed egg which mimics the behaviour of a real egg. It produces the same sounds and quirky movements, the mother Kakapo cannot tell the difference. Once the eggs hatch, the 3D printed egg is removed and the chicks are placed back in the nest. 

The real eggs are placed in an incubator and are carefully monitored. The genome of every Kakapo is sequenced, in an attempt to create Kakapo’s with superior attributes through insemination, semen of genetically superior males are carried via a drone known as the ‘cloacal courier’ to centres where females are perched. 

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During the breeding season, the conservationists work tirelessly round the clock, monitoring each Kakapo individually, literally scaling the treacherous wilderness and sleeping in tents. The word miracle best describes the hatching of a cracked egg held together by tape. Due to inbreeding, only half of the chicks survive. 

Future of the Kakapo

The government of New Zealand has invested in the conservation efforts, the government gave a grant of one million New Zealand dollars. Kakapo’s uniqueness allures many, especially children in the US and Europe, who make donations to such organisations. The government also regularly posts news and updates on Kakapo developments at doc.govt.nz/our-work/kakapo-recovery. 

Andrew Digby, scientific advisor for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program said, “Ultimately our goal is to get kakapo back on mainland New Zealand,” and “A few years ago it sounded pretty far-fetched like it might happen in 300 years’ time. But I think with the way things are going, that’s not such a distant dream.”

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