by Greta Yeoman
At the far end of Lake Tekapo, surrounded by mountains and a group of schoolchildren, sat seven boxes.
Inside the boxes were 19 kakī – black stilt – that were ready to relocate from a Department of Conservation breeding centre in Twizel to the remote rivers of the Mackenzie Basin.
Last Friday’s release of the native wading birds at Mt Gerald Station, located down a gravel road past the turnoff to Roundhill Ski Area, was the third of three kakī releases as part of Te Manahuna Aoraki conservation project.
Department of Conservation (Doc) rangers and staff from Te Manahuna Aoraki were joined by a contingent of pupils and teachers from Arowhenua Māori School, who had been invited to help release the birds.
Last year there were estimated to be just 132 kakī in the country, meaning the species is considered critically endangered.
That number is set to rapidly increase after the release of 130 birds across two locations over three days last week.
Sixty-six were released into the Tasman Valley on Monday, August 5, while two groups were resettled in the high-country land of Mt Gerald Station – 45 last Thursday and a further 19 on Friday.
Te Manahuna Aoraki – which translates, simply, to “The Mackenzie Aoraki” – includes representatives from Arowhenua, Waihao (near Waimate) and Moeraki marae, as well as Doc staff, the Next Foundation and high-country landowners.
Arowhenua Maori School principal Bronwyn Te Koeti said it was fitting that the school had been able to be part of the release, as the value the school was looking at this term was kaitiakitanga – guardianship and conservation.
It was also special to be part of a project to conserve an endangered species, as the aims of the bilingual school – which will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year – were all about preserving and celebrating the “endangered history and language” that was Māori, Whaea Bronwyn said.
About 30 of the school’s senior pupils attended the release day, which included visiting the Department of Conservation’s Kakī Recovery Programme aviary in Twizel, where the birds released at Mt Gerald Station were raised.
The kakī released in the Tasman Valley were raised by the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust in Christchurch.
Te Manahuna Aoraki, which began in November last year, began its work by focusing on expanding the number of traps in the basin.
Doc staff and others involved with the group have laid more than 2000 traps along the Cass and Godley river systems since November – most of which require regular checking by rangers, Doc biodiversity ranger Tom Smits said.
They are there to catch the stoats, wild cats and other pests that present a threat to the kakī.
Once a strong presence in the basin, kakī became a threatened species after rabbit eradication projects in the 1990s succeeded in wiping out most of the rabbits, but left the birds as an alternative easy target, Mr Smits said.
“We’ve never released kaki in the Godley and Cass with predator control.”
As a non-migrating bird, kakī stay in their valley homes all through winter, meaning when other animals leave, the wading creatures are often a target for hungry pests still hunting around the valleys.
So putting out the large number of traps has meant the now-released kakī will have their best shot at life, ranger Simone Cleland said.
“We’ve never released kakī in the Godley and Cass with predator control.”
The next step in the process would happen soon as the birds began laying eggs in the wild, she said.
Rangers would be on the lookout for kakī nests from about September to November, and would take them to the Kakī Recovery Programme’s aviary in Twizel.
The programme, which is run by the Department of Conservation in Twizel, has been breeding and releasing kakī into the Mackenzie Basin for more than 20 years – but last week’s releases were the first since Te Manahuna Aoraki began its work and started trapping in the basin last November, Ms Cleland said.
“[They have been] released in a safe haven.”
The chicks that would be born later this year would be raised in the aviary until they were a similar age to that of the newly released birds, and then they also would be released into the wild.
For now, however, the kakī would be adjusting to their new life in the Mackenzie back-country.
The birds were welcomed into their new home by the Arowhenua Māori School pupils, who opened the boxes containing the birds and also performed waiata, a haka and poi for the Doc staff.
As Whaea Bronwyn said, their singing echoed through the valley.
“And the kakī would have heard it too, on their first day here,” Whaea Bronwyn observed.