Pacific
12 Oct 2016

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation help staff of Cook Islands' partner save the Rarotonga Flycatcher

.The banding process is a delicate one, but it helps to identify individual Kakerori for future studies
By Te Ipukarea Society

In August the conservation of the colourful Kakerori (Rarotonga Flycatcher) got a boost through a hands on training of local staff from visiting predator control specialists from New Zealand.   Te Ipukarea Society project officers Liam and Alanna got up close and personal with the rare and bird in the Takitumu Conservation Area (TCA) where they joined staff of New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) as they traversed the rat baiting tracks, which are crucially important in keeping rat populations low enough to ensure the Kakerori’s survival. The two young officers learnt valuable techniques from the New Zealanders including setting up of mist nets and learning how to catch, measure, weigh and band the birds before releasing them back into the forest.

The Kakerori are the main characters in an inspiring Cook Islands conservation story. They were formerly common around Rarotonga, yet by the 1900s it was assumed they were extinct. However, in the 70s and 80s, surveys found that the Kakerori persisted in small numbers on the Southern side of Rarotonga. In the spring of 1987, Rod Hay and Hugh Robertson from New Zealand and Cook Islands biodiversity expert Gerald McCormack launched the Kakerori Recovery Programme, under the auspices of the Cook Islands Conservation Service, with volunteers.  The first two breeding seasons established that the total population of 38 Kakerori were restricted to an area of about 150 hectares in the headwaters of adjacent valleys and that their eggs and nestlings were being destroyed by rats, the most common being the Ship Rat (Rattus rattus).  And that the population decline was accelerating!

New Zealander Ed Saul became the backbone of the programme during the third season (1989): poisoning rats, protecting nests and documenting nest success. As a result of his continued efforts, initially as a volunteer and later as a member of the Cook Islands Conservation Service, the number of Kakerori rose from the low of 29 initiating his first season to more than 132 at the start of the 1996 breeding season. Today it is estimated there are over 400 Kakerori on Rarotonga. There is also a population of over 100 on Atiu, where a group of 30 birds had been translocated between 2001 and 2003, as Atiu is free of the ship-rat. This was done in order to further protect the species, in case something ever happened to the population on Rarotonga. Atiuan bird expert ‘Birdman George’ has been instrumental in the protection of these new inhabitants since their arrival on the island.

Passing on the expertise to a new generation of conservation leaders is essential to continuing the progress made in  saving the threatened birds and nature of the Pacific and building on a project that owes so much to the dedication of individuals like Ed Saul.