New Zealand’s most successful Olympian is using her star-power to save another national icon: the kiwi.

Fresh from a triple-gold medal haul at Tokyo, champion kayaker Lisa Carrington has signed up to become a Save the Kiwi ambassador – a role that’ll see her highlighting the plight of our cherished, flightless namesake, to bring it back from the brink.

Carrington, 32, told the Herald she’d been interested in conservation since growing up in the Bay of Plenty, home to its own sub-population of brown kiwi.

“I knew the kiwi population was somewhat under threat, but I didn’t have a grasp on how dire the situation was.”

Millions of kiwi once scratched around our prehistoric forest floors. But today, the national population stands at just around 68,000, with rates falling at around two per cent each year – or the equivalent of 20 birds each week.

“I’ve quickly realised action is needed now in order to prevent the kiwi population disappearing from the wild altogether.”

“It has really hit home that without the kiwi we lose a huge chunk of our identity as New Zealanders and I want to do my part to stop that from happening.”

She joins the cause as the country marks its first day of awareness-raising Save the Kiwi Week.

Michelle Impey, executive director of newly-rebranded charity Save the Kiwi, said predators like stoats, ferrets, rats, and dogs had shifted the entire biodiversity of our forests and pose great danger to the kiwi.

“The kiwi was never meant to meet predators on the forest floor,” she said.

“A kiwi is small and flightless, and its defence is to sit still and blend in with the forest floor, so if a chick encounters a stoat, it’s essentially a sitting duck.

“In fact, only five per cent of all chicks that hatch in unmanaged areas in the wild will make it to adulthood.

“It’s devastating to think that the other 95 per cent of chicks and juveniles have been attacked and killed by creatures that were never meant to be here in the first place.”

While stoats were regarded as public enemy number one to kiwi chicks, dogs remained the biggest risk to adult birds – particularly in high-tourism areas like Northland and Coromandel.

Part of Carrington’s involvement with Save the Kiwi will include an education campaign about dogs and kiwi over the summer holidays, featuring her own canine Colin.

Impey said that if the hard work was done now, the kiwi population had the potential to not just survive but thrive.

“Where the work is being done, we are seeing results. In some parts of the country, populations are even increasing,” she said.

“But so much work still needs to be done to reverse the national decline and teach New Zealanders about the small things they can do every day to join the cause.”

Carrington said serving as an ambassador was one way she can give back to New Zealand after receiving so much support during her Olympic campaign this year.

“The kiwi is so important to our identity as New Zealanders; not only are we known as ‘Kiwis’ around the world, Aotearoa has such unique wildlife,” she said.

“I want to be a part of it surviving for the future generations.”

Carrington’s recruitment comes months after former prime ministers John Key and Helen Clark also joined the cause – and set aside political differences to release into the wild a juvenile kiwi named Ardern.

Key and Clark were promoting a new, Save the Kiwi-run endowment fund that’s so far raised $300,000, with hopes of reaching $1m by its first anniversary in March.

Efforts to reverse the decline of species have redoubled over recent years.

In 2017, Kiwis for kiwi, Save the Kiwi’s former name, launched a programme of work to stock a number of predator-free sites – usually fenced sites or islands – on the North Island with kiwi.

That saw kiwi eggs gathered from the wild, hatched in specialist incubation facilities, then released into these kōhanga sites, where they remained permanently.

At the time, it was estimated that, within a decade, more than 1000 birds would be removed each year from these sites are released to predator-free areas.

Under the DoC’s separate recovery plan, there’s been a specific focus on predator control to save the most threatened kiwi species – tokoeka and roroa – with about 222,815ha of land treated.

Whereas kiwi once thrived in a well-suited, threat-free habitat, alongside a multitude of other species now either lost or driven to the edge of extinction, the dawn of human settlement marked a turning point.

The destruction reached a new level in the late 1800s, when mammalian predators introduced to control rabbits instead found a buffet of flightless birds that relied on camouflage as a means of defence – something not so effective against a ground-dwelling predator with a keen sense of smell.

When the scale of the massacre had been properly understood, it was estimated the population had fallen to 100,000, with an annual decline rate of 4 per cent.

While numbers had plunged further, DoC’s response of establishing a network of five kiwi sanctuaries in Whangārei, Coromandel, Tongariro, Haast and Okarito eventually halved the loss rate.

In the last 20 years, numbers have been slowly coming back up.

Kiwi researchers’ best estimates are that New Zealand’s kiwi population was 67,550 in 2015 – that’s fewer than the estimated 73,000 in 2008.

Their estimate was that, if the current management of each taxa was maintained for the next 15 years, the total kiwi population would be more or less stable.

Since 2000, population declines had been turned around for the four rarest – rowi, Haast tokoeka, Coromandel brown kiwi and little spotted kiwi – and reduced for others.

Across all 10 kiwi species, the proportion of each population under active management varied greatly, but generally, the smaller the percentage under active management.

The species with the largest number of birds under active management was the Northland brown – about half its 8,200 population.

That with the smallest was the Rakiura (Stewart Island) tokoeka – with just 250 birds out of an estimated population of 13,000, just 1.9 per cent.

“A significant amount of Aotearoa’s forest remains unmanaged and kiwi remain at significant risk due to predators. When we have better predator control, kiwi populations will increase,” Impey said.

“And if this small, flightless, blind, vulnerable bird that sleeps during the day can thrive while living on the forest floor, then the rest of the forest’s wildlife will thrive too.”

Kiwi Facts

• An average of 27 kiwi are killed by predators every week. That’s a population decline of around 1,400 kiwi every year, or two per cent. At this rate, kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime. Just one hundred years ago, kiwi numbered in the millions.

• A single roaming dog can wipe out an entire kiwi population in a matter of days

• Approximately 20 per cent of the kiwi population is under management.

• In areas under where predators are controlled, 50 to 60 per cent of chicks survive. When areas are not under management 95 per cent of kiwi die before reaching breeding age.

• Only a 20 per cent survival rate of kiwi chicks is needed for the population to increase. On the Coromandel, in the predator-controlled area, the kiwi population is doubling every decade.

• To find out more about Save the Kiwi Week, visit the website.

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