Kiwi waddles amiably towards extinction

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THE SHY, none-too-bright kiwi, New Zealand's national symbol, is sliding gradually towards extinction. Later this year all three kinds of kiwi will go on to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List, the global file of endangered wildlife.

Surveys show that kiwis have vanished from tracts of forest where the male's shrill call could once be heard. The nocturnal, flightless bird is being eradicated by stoats, ferrets, dogs, cats and Australian bush-tail possums introduced to New Zealand, which once had no mammals, by man.

'They show the classical signs of a species in trouble - small and shrinking populations, fragmented range, threats which are proving extremely difficult to deal with,' said Alison Stattersfield of Birdlife International, which monitors endangered birds around the world.

Kevin Smith, conservation director for New Zealand's Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, said: 'As a Kiwi, I'm shattered to admit we're letting them slip away. Ten years ago we thought we had them secure. We need breakthroughs against a raft of furry little predators which are eating them and their eggs and chicks out of existence.'

The kiwis' long life gives grounds for false optimism. The adults, which are only taken by the larger predators, are still there but they fail to raise young year after year.

The sweet-faced but much loathed bush-tail possum, now a rarity in its native Australia, squats in kiwi nesting burrows and eats their eggs. Dogs chase and kill kiwis with the same joyful abandon they exhibit hunting rabbits. A researcher carrying out a radio tracking survey of kiwis found one stray Alsatian had slaughtered hundreds of birds, including most of his research subjects.

For years, conservationists have been campaigning to have dogs banned from kiwi forests and for Department of Conservation staff to have the right to shoot strays. 'We put dogs on a pedestal - it's a part of our British heritage along with these introduced mammals which are killing the kiwi,' said Mr Smith.

There are at least three species of kiwi - the brown, the great spotted and the little spotted. Population estimates are vague because of the bird's secretive life, but none number more than a few thousand. The little spotted had been reduced to a population of 1,000 living on the islet of Kapiti near Wellington. The good news is that in an experiment in which a few pairs have been moved to other predator-free islets, the birds are breeding.

The great spotted occupies a shrinking area in the north- west of South Island. Scientists believe the chicken-sized brown, commonest of the kiwis and found on both main islands, may consist of three species. If so, one of these, the Okarito variant, is in dire straits, numbering about 100.

Before the Maoris and then the Europeans arrived there were probably millions of kiwis. They may have evolved their nocturnal, covert nature to hide from a large New Zealand eagle which itself became extinct thousands of years ago.

Kiwis eat worms, insects and fruit and lay huge eggs. Frank Wheeler, who once looked after a couple at London Zoo, said: 'They were a delight . . . not a nasty bone in their body, but you couldn't exactly call them intelligent. Eventually they would sit on my arm like parrots when I brought food.' Hopes of them breeding collapsed when both turned out to be male. One died, the other went to Singapore to join a captive breeding programme.

Zoos in New Zealand also have several of the birds, which are now the only ones most human kiwis are ever likely to see. Conservationists like Mr Smith say they must be preserved in the wild on the mainland, rather than on a string of predator- free offshore islets. In a country where public spending has been slashed and free-market initiatives pioneered, it's not surprising to find one of the country's leading banks footing most of the modest pounds 120,000-a- year kiwi conservation budget. 'Grossly underfunded,' tuts Mr Smith. 'We've got an obligation to preserve our unique wildlife and we're short-changing the global community.'

At this stage, the bulk of spending still goes on monitoring and research to find out where the kiwi lingers and how its enemies can be dealt with.

Advances in conservation technology (infra-red night scopes and remote control video cameras which observe the kiwi's comings and goings) have helped. Dogs, the bird's great enemy, are also doing their bit. Trained and muzzled, they are the most effective way of sniffing out which bits of forest still have resident kiwis.

Sarah Lee, the Chicago-based group which owns the 'Kiwi' brand name for shoe polish, is now considering how it could help the conservation effort. More than 170 million tins, each bearing a kiwi logo, are sold each year in 130 countries. And all because Australian entrepreneur William Ramsay, who first marketed the polish in 1906, loved and admired his New Zealand-born wife, Annie.

The kiwi is one of about 40 bird species unique to New Zealand which are regarded as endangered. The closest brush with extinction came with the black robin, which 20 years ago was down to just one mating pair. A frantic and ingenious effort to boost their breeding, all done in the wild, has seen numbers recover to over 100.

'We don't want to get to that stage with the kiwi,' said Brian Bell, an Auckland-based wildlife consultant and leading kiwi expert. 'We can't take our national emblem for granted.'

'Birds to watch 2: the world list of threatened birds' is available from Birdlife International, Wellbrook Court, Girton Road, Cambridge CB3 0NA at pounds 14.

(Photograph omitted)