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Going to Extremes

Without the extraordinary dedication of a few conservationists, New Zealand's kakapo would likely have gone the way of the dodo

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The helicopter hovered above the surface for a moment, then crashed into the water and began to sink. Inside, three men took in huge lungfuls of air. “One . . . two . . . three,” they counted, “. . . four . . . FIVE! Go!” They wiggled out, pushed open the door and shot toward the light. Two of the men burst to the surface and sucked in air while a third surfaced calmly. “That was good, gentlemen,” the third man said, floating alongside the two gasping ornithologists, “but we’ll have to do it again. Just so that you really get it nailed.” Technicians raised the helicopter simulator above the pool and prepped it for another drop.

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Even among birders, who are renowned for the lengths they will go to indulge their passions, Don Merton, 63, and Graeme Elliott, 45, are a breed apart. Merton is the most senior member of New Zealand’s government-run Kakapo Recovery Programme, and Elliott is its research scientist. Their efforts on behalf of the shy, flightless parrot known as the kakapo include airlifting the few remaining birds to a remote and predator-free island in the Pacific. This island’s shores are so rugged that few boats can land. Thus the need for Merton and Elliott to undergo this rigorous helicopter training.

 

Why all this trouble for a bird? Having encountered a kakapo firsthand, I think I understand. During the release of a bird called Sirocco on CodfishIsland, located off the southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, I watched as he climbed out of his box, shuffled up a horizontal branch and stretched his powerful limbs in a ballerina-like posture, using his wings for balance. I reached out my hand slowly, and Sirocco touched it with his stubby beak, then unceremoniously leaped onto my arm as if it were an extension of the branch and climbed up to perch on my shoulder. He put his flat, owl-like face—its wide brown disks around the eyes and a beak nearly obscured by feathery whiskers—next to mine, then stretched out toward a fresh shoot of a fern and began to munch noisily. He reminded me of a Persian cat.

 

Even after nearly three decades studying kakapos, Merton’s eyes still shine behind his square gold-rimmed glasses when he talks about them. He wears a shy smile and a big backpack and is happiest in the forest. Perhaps best known for his early 1980s rescue of the Chatham Islands black robin, whose numbers once dipped to five—including only two females—he has helped save a number of other species in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Christmas Island. No bird, however, has tested Merton’s resourcefulness as much as the kakapo, which he calls “my ultimate challenge.” For 30 years now, in an effort unprecedented in the history of New Zealand conservation, Merton has been fighting a largely losing battle to keep kakapos alive: their numbers have declined steeply over the past century, and the bird is perilously close to extinction. The remaining population—86 birds—has stabilized but is aging.

 

The kakapo was once abundant throughout New Zealand from sea level to snow line. “The birds used to be in dozens round the camp, screeching and yelling like a lot of demons, and at times it was impossable [sic] to sleep for the noise,” wrote the 19th-century explorer Charlie Douglas. On moonlit nights, Douglas went on, one could shake a tree and kakapos dropped like ripe apples. He also observed that their firm, fruity white flesh made “very good eating.”

 

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