The species was thought to have gone extinct in 1898, but a tiny population was rediscovered fifty years later on the South Island of New Zealand. A large, flightless bird with a beautiful blue-green iridescent plumage and bright red beak, the takahē today only numbers around 70 in the wild and is considered critically endangered. This makes the fact that hunters accidentally shot four of them when they were meant to be culling another, similar-looking but much more abundant, species all the more shocking.
The killing of the birds is “deeply disappointing,” according to New Zealand Conservation Department director, Andrew Baucke. The hunters, members of the local deerstalkers association, were licensed to kill the much more common Australasian swamphen, or pukeko. These birds have a very similar appearance to the rare takahē, but they are about half the size and can fly. They also live in vast numbers across New Zealand often causing damage to the nests and eggs of threatened species. As a result the birds are culled on the island refuge of Motutapu where, prior to the shooting, 21 takahē were known to live.
The National President of the New Zealand Deerstalker’s Association (NZDA), Bill O’Leary, said that he was “appalled” by what had happened. In a statement he said: “I share with the department a concern that the deaths will affect efforts to save an endangered species. I apologise to the department and to the country at large. The NZDA is committed to working with the department to protect endangered species and back country assets.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into protecting and building up the numbers of takahē, which now number around 300 in captivity but only 70 or so in the wild. This means that the killing of the four birds on Motutapu represents about 5% of the bird’s entire wild population. An inquiry has been launched as to how the hunters mistook the birds, especially since they were instructed only to hunt birds “on the wing,” so the flightless takahē should not ahve been targeted.
Some conservationists are particularly incensed considering the endangered birds had been moved to the island from another sanctuary, where the only other wild population exists, for safety. Talking to the New Zealand Herald, politician Rino Tirakatene said: “There's no way that they would send their treasured takahē to a sanctuary for it to be slaughtered. There are even calls for the return home of those birds. There is a lot of goodwill that goes with these gifts to improve the biodiversity and to see that they've been needlessly been bowled over by some deerhunters is just really disappointing.”
Image in text: The pukeko is a common speices, that often out competes more threatened species. Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos CC BY-SA 2.0