Takahē once lived throughout Te Waipounamu South Island. Māori reported that their night cry sounded like the striking of two pieces of pounamu. Habitat loss and hunting led to a steep decline, and only four takahē were seen (and then killed and turned into museum specimens) during the last half of the 19th century. The South Island takahē was scientifically named in 1851 and thought to be extinct. It was officially declared extinct in 1898. It was thought to have experienced the same fate as the moa and the moho (North Island takahē).
Ka tū te moho. Kia ora ake anō. The takahē stands, in order to live again.Takahē Recovery Programme
Geoffrey Orbell first saw a stuffed takahē on display in the Otago Museum. A doctor and amateur naturalist, Orbell took note of possible takahē sightings and concluded that, if takahē did exist, they most likely lived on the tussocky highlands in Fiordland.
Orbell, Rex Watson and Neil McCrostie went into the remote Murchison Mountains in April 1948. They found bird footprints with the big toe bent inwards, just as Orbell had noticed with the Otago Museum specimen. They also heard unfamiliar bird calls. The science community was sceptical so the trio, along with Joan Telfer, returned in November with camera gear and netting and proved to the world that takahē were still alive.
The challenge: conserve a bird about which little is known
The New Zealand Government immediately closed the Murchison Mountains area to the public. The 200 pairs of takahē were left to themselves as experts debated the best way to aid their survival. In 1957, a captive breeding programme was established at the Pūkaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre in Wairarapa. The location is snowy and wet, but not as extreme as Fiordland. The team at the centre tried a number of different approaches and learned about the birds, their needs and their behaviours.
At first, the team tried to incubate takahē eggs under bantam chickens. When that did not work, live takahē were moved from Fiordland to Wairarapa. Breeding difficulties continued. Takahē are territorial, and in the wild, their territories range from 5–60 hectares. In the safe but confined centre, some of the birds spent so much time defending their fenced territories that they did not have enough time to eat. The team created small neutral zones between the pens and provided extra nutrients in the birds’ drinking water. Fertility increased, and the first chick was successfully reared in 1977.
Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre
In 1985, the Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre opened near Te Anau. Initially, the centre incubated and then hand-reared takahē chicks. Department of Conservation rangers used an innovative approach – takahē hand puppets – to feed and interact with the birds. The rangers did not want the chicks to become used to humans.
Management practices have continued to develop. The centre now keeps up to 25 pairs of breeding birds in a natural 80 hectare tussock grass/beech forest enclosure. The birds are left to incubate the eggs on their nests and to rear the chicks themselves. Rangers do intervene a bit, with a technique known as nest manipulation. They check every nest and egg, removing infertile eggs to encourage the birds to re-nest or replacing eggs with fertile eggs from other nests.
Offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries
Takahē were first transferred to pest-free Kāpiti Island in 1968 but the birds did not survive. Fortunately, other translocations have worked and small groups of takahē live in 19 offshore locations including Mana and Kāpiti Islands near Wellington and Tiritiri Matangi, Motutapu and Rotoroa Islands near Auckland. Ecological island sanctuaries – like those at Orokonui Ecosanctuary and ZEALANDIA – also host small takahē populations. Young birds are removed from these areas to limit overcrowding and to avoid inbreeding.
Second wild population established
In March 2018, the Department of Conservation successfully established 18 birds in the Gouland Downs area in Kahurangi National Park. By early November, the first eggs were discovered. DOC plans to continue translocating takahē to this area.
It is fitting that the first wild nest outside of the Murchison Mountains was discovered in November 2018, as this date also marks the 70th anniversary of the takahē’s rediscovery. DOC’s Takahē Recovery Programme along with Ngāi Tahu and many commercial and private supporters have helped the takahē population to grow from a low of 124 birds in 1981 to 347 birds in 2017.
Extensive pest control combined with growing knowledge of the birds’ breeding, behaviours and ecology have seen the takahē’s conservation status move from extinction to nationally critical and, in 2017, to nationally vulnerable. The takahē is indeed the bird that came back from the dead!
Nature of science
Creativity is an important aspect of science. Takahē are unique to New Zealand so aspects of the various conservation strategies have never been tried before. Over the years, scientists working with takahē have tried new methods, gathered evidence about their efficacies and then adapted or abandoned the methods.
The takahē is just one of New Zealand’s native birds that is under threat. The article Conserving native birds - introduction has links to resources that explore the issues surrounding conservation, including student activities and teacher professional development links.
The article Conservation rankings explains the ranking systems used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the New Zealand Threat Classification System.
Explore the Department of Conservation’s website for information about:
View a timeline of takahē conservation.
A 30 minute video about the takahē rediscovery and conservation programme is hosted by NZ On Screen.
Watch some of the original colour footage from the 1948 rediscovery of the takahē.
A takahē chick was born in ZEALANDIA on 21 November 2018. Read the Q&As regarding the chick’s management.
Listen as Alison Ballance interviews Joan Watson, the last surviving member of the team that rediscovered the takahē.
This news article from 2012 showcases the Murchison Mountains and some of the work required to protect the takahē.
Elwyn’s Dream: Saving the Takahē by Ali Foster (2014) is a picture book that tells the true story of how Elwyn Welch helped breed takahē, his farm later becoming Pūkaha Mount Bruce, New Zealand’s National Wildlife Centre. Visit the National Library website to place a request for the book (New Zealand schools) or visit Te Puna for a list of libraries within New Zealand that hold copies of the book. Teacher materials to support the book can be found here.