Battling to Save our Charismatic Kea
A Chill interview with the Kea Conservation Trust.
New Zealand’s unique, curious and cheeky mountain parrots are in serious danger: the kea population is currently listed as Nationally Endangered, and declining. Chill encourages skiers and snowboarders to get involved with the vital work the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT) is doing.
We spoke with Tasmsin Orr-Walker: co-founder and Chair of the KCT, founded in 2006. Tamsin is also KCT Project Coordinator and Community Engagement Coordinator (Lower South Island).
What is the core purpose of the Trust?
To assist in the conservation of wild kea in their natural habitat, and to increase the husbandry standards and advocacy potential of kea held in captive facilities within New Zealand.
How close are kea to becoming extinct?
All research in the last 10 years points to a population severely under threat from a range of issues impacting on keas’ ability to reproduce and survive to breeding age.
All the threats to kea are of human origin. From the late 1860’s to early 1970’s, a government bounty was in place - as a result of keas’ predilection for sheep fat. This reduced their numbers over a 100 year period, by 150,000.
Nowadays, predation of nests is devastating populations. E.g. The Nelson Lakes population, found to be stable during a six year study in the 1990's, decreased by 80% by 2009 - a catastrophic decline! During the 10 year interval, two beech masts occurred, along with a subsequent rise in numbers of possums and stoats (originally introduced by humans). Cameras set at the three remaining nests, showed nests consistently predated on.
Lead poisoning is another widespread issue for kea. Research carried out since 2006 has shown wherever kea overlap with human habitation, lead is present in their blood. In areas such as Mt Cook and the West Coast, these lead levels are extremely high.
Other threats include accessing traps and baits used to control pests, on-going persecution by humans, vehicle strike (particularly in areas such as Arthur’s Pass), ingestion of non-digestible objects (e.g. rubber, string, rubbish), and electrocution from alpine substations.
What impacts are ski areas having?
Kea are highly attracted to ski areas. Visitors mean food, cars and bright, colourful objects - an irresistible, dangerous combination for inquisitive parrots. Ski areas themselves can also present problems; moving equipment, electrical wiring, rubbish, toxins, lead, and water barrels have all been an issue for kea in past years. Fortunately many ski areas have successfully ‘kea-proofed’ their ski fields to a high standard.
Ski areas can also make a positive impact by educating their visitors. They also have a great opportunity to raise funds to support kea conservation: simply adding a $1 donation to every ski pass (which other businesses such as zoos do), would help provide certainty for conservation projects.
The KCT has free, professionally-designed signs and posters in electronic form, that ski areas can download, and stunning, professional videos for display:
What makes kea so cheeky and intelligent?!
Kea have evolved in an extremely harsh environment - the snow-covered mountains and forests of the Southern Alps. As the only parrot species in the world living in snowy, alpine regions, they’ve had to become highly adaptive and exploratory to survive.
Also, kea are considered ‘neophilic’ - they love anything new. This adaptive curiosity has ensured their success for tens of thousands of years in our mountain wilderness. However it has also resulted in them coming into conflict with humans over the past 150 years, and almost being wiped out.
What are their breeding habits?
Unusually, kea are winter breeders - producing eggs in their underground nests from July. Eggs hatch after almost a month’s incubation and chicks fledge around three months later. The father must find food during the harsh winter months and resource the female, who then feeds the young chicks. As the chicks become less vulnerable, both parents leave the nest to forage. Pairs generally mate for life, only re-pairing if one dies.
What do kea eat?
Although the keas’ diet is predominantly plant-based (seasonal fruits, seeds, nectar, flowers, roots and leaves of our native plants), animal protein and fats are consumed when available. Human food is also on the keas menu, however this high energy fat/sugar diet creates a raft of problems for kea that would normally spend many hours foraging for natural foods. Feeding kea also encourages them into areas where they’re vulnerable to being hit by passing vehicles, the likelihood of conflict, or to eating toxic substances.
How far do they roam? We don’t know exactly. It depends in part, on their age and time of year. Satellite-tracked juveniles have been tracked as travelling 100km in three days, whilst breeding pairs stay close to their known territory (4km2). At different times of the year, flocks of young kea and adult males will be highly mobile and more or less visible, depending on seasonal food availability.
How do you source funds and support?
Funding’s always a challenge! Contestable funding is our main source of income, as are funds from zoos holding kea. Local businesses also help raise funds and awareness. Donations received from individuals, community and conservation groups, via our ski field donation boxes and Givealittle pages, make up almost quarter of our annual income. All donors are listed on our website and acknowledged in our bimonthly email updates (which are also posted on our Facebook page: Kea Conservation Trust).
We receive considerable in-kind support from the Department of Conservation (use of transport, equipment, accommodation, meeting venues and experienced personnel), plus support from local communities, businesses and volunteers. Specialist volunteers help with data entry, production of promotional videos and sighting apps, kea surveys and pest control - the list goes on! It’s hugely inspiring to see people from all walks of life and all ages coming together to help save our unique and charismatic kea.
Tell us about community outreach, ‘Kea Project Plans’ - how can people get involved?
Our nine, newly-developed South Island Community Kea Plans involve regular brainstorming sessions, held over the next two years; to activate local education/advocacy programmes, population monitoring, threat mitigation, and to find sources of funding and support, to ensure long-term sustainability. You can find out more and get in touch via our website: keaconservation.co.nz/projects/community-kea-project-plans/
We’ll also be having a South Island Winter Tour (27th June - 7th July). The theme is ‘A Kea Revolution - transforming perceptions to save the world's only mountain parrot’. We’ll look at the process of changing the negative attitudes to kea (built up over the 100 year bounty), and the battle today, to save them from extinction. This includes how local communities around the South Island and supporters around the world, are banding together to halt keas’ slippery slide into oblivion.
Then we’ll brainstorm ways all of us, children and adults, can get involved in this new kea revolution. Dates and venues will be posted at:
Anything else we can do to help?
Look out for KCT donation boxes at ski areas! Be a positive advocate for kea - share their story with your own networks, and visit our website - find out how you can get involved.
Image: Mat Goodman Photography.