Caring for the Kakapo, New Zealand’s Endangered Parrot

When you’re working alone in the bush the last thing you want to see is the outside toilet door opening, but for Department of Conservation ranger Ricki Mitchell, this was an intrusion of the avian variety. The kakapo. New Zealand’s critically endangered flightless parrot, and a welcome relief for her to say the least!

After graduating with a bachelors degree in Zoology, Mitchell went on to study for a year to become a trainee ranger for the Department of Conservation (DOC), a government run organisation that’s aim is to protect both New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage.

Mitchell is currently working on Anchor Island, an island in Fiordland National Park off the west coast of the South Island in New Zealand. Uninhabited other than a few rangers and volunteers, it acts as a predator free sanctuary for these endemic and vulnerable birds.

The kakapo population was severely affected in the 1800s by European settlers who brought with them cats, rats and stoats. This introduction spelled trouble for these vulnerable, ground dwelling birds, and by the middle of the 1900s the kakapo was presumed a lost cause. But in the deepest parts of the forest the kakapo persevered, and in the late 1970s kakapo were found on Stewart Island. Schemes were quickly put in place to boost their recovery that still run today.

It’s probably safe to say that most people have never seen a kakapo in real life. For these people, myself included, Mitchell offers an insight, ‘imagine a green bird as big as a cat, as playful as a dog and as sweet smelling as a bottle of perfume’. The interactions with the birds while monitoring is one of the best parts of the job. ‘Every interaction I have takes my breath away. Each bird has a unique personality, some are calm and inquisitive, and some playful’.

From working a chainsaw, building and four wheel driving, the trainee ranger course provided a range of practical skills that supplemented everything Mitchell learnt at university. Following a placement on Anchor Island within the course Ricki was offered a contract, and she couldn’t be happier, ‘I’ve always wanted to work in conservation, and DOC has played such a large, important role in New Zealand’s conservation. I feel very proud to be a ranger’.

The breeding season is the busiest time of year for a ranger. Adult and chick survival is of the utmost priority. Nests need to be monitored and eggs protected, so a nights work might involve sleeping out at a nest to ensure the birds are happy and healthy.

But first Mitchell needs to find them. ‘Their camouflage is so impressive, that more often than not, you smell them before you can actually see them’. Thankfully the birds are all fitted with radiotransmitters, but a lot of hiking has to be done to track them down. Once the birds are located the health checks can be performed.

The first time Mitchell saw a kakapo she said she truly understood why it was so important to save these species, ‘The world needs more people who are willing to fight for conservation, the environment and species within it. Find your passion for these things and just follow them’.

Just last month the kakapo population has reached record numbers and the population now sits at 211 birds. This has been a colossal effort and is thanks to rangers, like Mitchell, working to ensure these birds come back from the brink of extinction.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Wildlife