Sunday, March 10, 2013


If you have any interest in nature, or science, Douglas Adam's lecture/talk on rare and endangered species has to be watched (or read). It's all free. There's no excuse. Go watch it.

I've watched it myself a few times, mostly because I end up sitting down and forcing it upon people. But today I found my way back to it again through this video I stumbled across.

It's a flightless parrot from New Zealand, called the Kakapo (which apparently is Maori for 'night parrot').

Hutton and Drummond, two ornithologists from the beginning of the last century said this about the Kakapo: "Its intelligence commands respect, and its helplessness sympathy, while its genial nature endears it to all who know it well. It repays kindness with gratitude, and is as affectionate as a dog, and as playful as a kitten."

I love the different attitudes Fry and Adams have for this bird. Fry talks about it with reverence. Adams compares it to a brick.

Not that Adams doesn't have reverence for the birds... their individuality just makes them somewhat absurd from the human perspective. You either have to laugh at them, or cry. Because their story is a sad one.

Adams makes the point that their numbers went down from 100s of 1000s to less than a hundred in the 19th Century. But let me spell out how endangered they are: In 2002, 24 Kakapo chicks were hatched, increasing the population of the species by 37%, bringing the number up to 86 (there was a population increase 2009 bringing the population up to 126). There's so few left, many have been individually named.

Stuffed Kakapo @ Slovenské Národné
Photo: Ben Sweeney
Their story goes something like this: 82 million years ago, what is now New Zealand, broke away from the supercontinent Godwana, isolating the genus. Faced with a slow life and no predators they 'forgot' how to fly, grew larger, and developed long, and complex mating rituals that would take place every 3-4 years (relying on an increase in quantity of foodstuffs for their chicks than a need to over-produce to survive the predators, which didn't est).

Their primary way of dealing with danger was to freeze and let their coloration disguise them. Which works fine when it comes to flying predators, but doesn't work so well when it comes to humans with sticks.

The first Polynesian population on the island decimated the birds numbers, using them for food and destroying forests. Kakapo were a dietary staple for about 2000 years, until the arrival of a sweet potato.

But it was when the Europeans arrived in the mid-19th Century that they really got it hard. It turned out that the Europeans thought it was quite tasty and it then became a staple of their diet.

"By 1934, specimens of the kakapo were installed in museums and private collections around the world. Most major museums had several carcasses. The market was so flooded with skins they were worth only 37p each, and in previous years they were so abundant they were even fed to dogs for meat. With all of these things happening, by the 1930s humans had caused the kakapos' extinction on the north island of New Zealand."

In 1952, New Zealand's government began a conservation effort, but the numbers were so depleted and the areas they now inhabited so remote and difficult to get to, that just 8 birds were found before 1972.

I hear you ask, why didn't the bird flourish in these distant, difficult-to-reach areas?

Humans were not the only invading force. They brought with them a whole range of invading species: the rats on the boats, cats as pets, dogs as hunting companions, and stoats (which were introduced as a population control on another invading species, rabbits, which the Europeans had also brought with them). These creatures all had ample time and opportunity to become go wild, feral and breed outside of human control. To top it all off, 250 red deer were introduced to New Zealand as hunting game. The deer eat the same plants as the Kakapo, and in greater quantities.

All of these animals moved into the areas that humans didn't, and by 1970s they were as pretty much extinct on the main islands. The government chose to relocate them to smaller islands where there were no predators and deer.

Douglas Adam's does a pretty good (and entertaining) job of explaining why the very nature of these birds works against them (a small section from Parrots, Universe, and Everything).

Or better still, here's a documentary devoted solely to the bird.

I spent a lot of today with these birds (digitally, though I'd love to go visit a real one), and the thing that has struck me most about these birds is how people talk about them. The two big names, Adams and Fry, both clearly hold them dear, but there is something unforgiving about Adams' sense of humour. It almost sounds like it is entirely with these birds, and their trusting natures, their complete inability to adapt quickly enough, that their problems were their own fault.

But I don't think it is this. He takes for granted that humans know they are singularly responsible, and I think this silence is louder than pointing it out.

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