As national symbols go, the kiwi makes up in curiosity value for what it lacks in good looks.
The squat, flightless bird looks a bit like a cross between a hamster and an anteater, with fur-like plumage, a long, quill-like beak and a grumpy demeanor.
But don’t let its looks and ungainliness mislead you: This bird is to New Zealanders what the bald eagle is to Americans.
It’s on the coins and many product logos. It’s in the indigenous Maori creation myth and lends its name to the fruit, a New Zealand export. It’s even a synonym for the currency, as well as for a New Zealander, as in: “I’m a kiwi, mate, and proud of it.”
The only kiwis in short supply are the creatures themselves.
They’re an endangered species, now being nursed back to healthy numbers by an innovative conservation effort not far from the bustle of Wellington, the capital.
“When we talk about the kiwi — that’s our identity,” said Raewyn Empson, conservation manager at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. “When all of a sudden you’re talking about kiwi becoming extinct in our lifetime, it’s a bit scary really.” The kiwi and other species are victims of their own innocence and the twists and turns of evolution and human settlement on these South Pacific islands.
Rugged and wind-swept, New Zealand is so remote that many of its animals had few enemies and never developed strong defense mechanisms.
Then man began arriving — Polynesians first, with rats in their canoes. Much later, Europeans came, bringing cats, dogs, stoats, ferrets, possums, rabbits and weasels.
New Zealand today has one of the world’s worst biodiversity depletion rates. More than 30 percent — at least 51 species — of native birds are believed to have died out, along with frogs, lizards, fish and plants, government studies say.
The kiwi virtually disappeared from New Zealand’s mainland and could only be seen on smaller, less inhabited islands.
But communities and individuals have rushed to the rescue.
More than two dozen privately run sanctuaries have opened in recent years. Thousands of volunteers have stepped up to trap, kill or chase away nonnative predators.
Karori is trying to restore approximately 2.6km² of river valley to its pre-human state.
Before man arrived, New Zealand’s lush forests were populated by “some pretty weird and unusual and primitive animals,” said Don Newman, the Conservation Department’s manager of threatened-species science.
They included huge bugs, dinosaur-era reptiles and birds that had forgotten how to fly.
While farmers cleared forest, depriving native species of habitat, the newly arrived mammals raided nests and burrows.
But at the Karori sanctuary, Empson is undaunted by the damage that needs undoing.
“We’ve got a 500-year vision here,” she says. “We’re optimists.”
Surrounded by a 2m fence that can’t be climbed or burrowed under, Karori is viewed as a model among the private sanctuaries, both for its tourism and scientific research potential.
In 2000, little spotted kiwi — the smallest and rarest of the six kiwi species — were released into Karori, returning the bird to the wild on the mainland for the first time in a century.
Within a year a chick was born and named Frodo after the hero-hobbit of the Lord of the Rings movies, which were filmed in New Zealand. The park expects to count about 40 of the birds by next year.