Alerting a nation to the kiwi's fading call

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The Independent Online
ADELE SMAILL is sitting in silence, in a forest, in the dark. It is midnight on Sunday and there are thick, wintry clouds, which is good. If the moon began to shine, she would go home. She is listening for examples of the national symbol, and, when they call, calculating their distance and their sex. This is called the Night Listen, an important part of her job.

Adele, 30, loves her job although it is tinged with sadness.The national symbol is the kiwi, perhaps the strangest bird in the world, and something terrible is happening to the kiwi. Its population has crashed from five million in the 1920s to about 68,000 and halving every decade. Adele's job as protection officer in the New Zealand Department of Conservation's kiwi recovery programme is to stop this decline.

On Sunday three of us are with Adele in a valley on the east of Coromandel Peninsula. She knows there are four kiwi around. After an hour one person, a local councillor, heard a distant cry. "There it is again," he whispers. "That," Adele says, "was a weta."

A weta is a giant native cricket with a whistling call. She shines a torch on the weta, on a branch above the councillor's head.

The next night she is at a feminist bush commune on the other side of the peninsula. Already one of the kiwi varieties is extinct here. The handbooks say the Little Spotted Kiwi has a "very mellow and docile nature", which was fine for its first 70 million years in Pacific isolation, but no use when it met hard-eyed British migrants, the ferret, the stoat, the weasel, the dog, the cat and the ship's rat, which arrived last century.

Even worse was the Australian possum. There are 90 million possum in New Zealand, introduced for the fur trade. The possum eat eggs and chicks and even evict kiwi from their burrows.

Another variety of kiwi, the North Island Brown, has survived here, being bigger and bad-tempered. After an hour on this Night Listen, a male kiwi is heard. Adele answers: instantly the bird rushes through the dark to challenge the intruder. Ten feminists, themselves something of a terror in the district, fall over one another getting away from an angry Northern Brown.

Once it is known kiwis are around, the second stage of the recovery programme begins.

On Tuesday Adele addresses 24 locals, mostly retired couples, and introduces them to the charms of poisoning possums and trapping stoats and ferrets, begging them to believe their own pets are implicated in the slaughter of kiwis.

"The best stoat is perfectly flat," she says, waving a stoat skin. "And the same is true of the cat." There is a sharp intake of collective breath.

The bird is a curious national symbol. I saw a live one in a zoo - it looked like an old Beatle haircut rambling through the undergrowth. Some people object to its status as an official icon but, after 15 years of harsh market reforms and social authoritarianism, New Zealand is a cheerless place. This nocturnal free spirit with its wild cry and eccentric lifestyle seems to be a bird of good omen.

Adele sets off the following day for the wilds to meet pig-hunters. Their idea of a good weekend is a semi-murderous rugby game to warm up, and then into the bush to take on the wild pigs in the mountains. Their pig-dogs, often bull-terrier crosses, have a bad reputation for eating kiwi. After hunters were banned in national forests, feral pig numbers spiralled and poaching increased. Adele has set up a programme of kiwi-awareness for the hunters and aversion therapy - a frozen kiwi carcass and an electric collar - for the dogs.

Bristles, Huggie and Paul are waiting. They're the hunters. The dogs are Boff, Rip, Nudda, Snapper, Nig. Dogs, having good memories, respond to aversion therapy. A couple of jolts and even Rip, the meanest, cringes from a tendered kiwi-feather.

On Thursday Adele heads to Red Mercury, another island where, in a programme funded by the Bank of New Zealand, chicks are released after artificial hatching. On the mainland, 90 per cent of kiwi chicks are killed before they are a month old.

Animal rights campaigners in Europe unwittingly caused this kiwi slaughter. The success of the anti-fur lobby finished possum-trapping and ferret- farmers released their stock into the wild.

The kiwi occupies the same niche as the badger in England. It digs dens, lives for 40 years, its feathers resemble long hair and it emerges only at night, avoiding the full moon. It has nostrils at the tip of its beak, andsniffs the wind like a fox. At present rates, it will be extinct on the mainland by 2075.

Adele is struggling with an adolescent bird whose beak, for some reason, requires measuring. "If only people in Europe would start wearing fur again ..." she says.

Peter Walker