What's On at Zealandia


Rifleman Interview with Danielle Shanahan
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Rifleman Interview with Danielle Shanahan

Last week, it was announced that the planned translocation of 80 tītipounamu / rifleman into the sanctuary in March 2017, followed by another 80 into Otari-Wilton's Bush in 2018 had been postponed due to ZEALANDIA having just learned that population in the Wainuiomata source site (the Wainuiomata / Orongorongo Key Native Ecosystem area) are considerably lower than previously thought.

We asked Dr. Danielle Shanahan, ZEALANDIA’s Conservation Manager for some background on the postponement and about the next steps in bringing these iconic species into the sanctuary.

Danielle, we can understand how disappointed that you and the rest of the team will be at having to postpone after the preparation and work that has gone into the project so far. 

You have mentioned that you will be working with all ZEALANDIA’s partners over the next year to identify possible alternative places where tītipounamu are thriving for a possible translocation.

Does this mean that the postponement is at least a year? 

Yes the postponement would be at least a year away, for two reasons really. The first is that at least one more breeding season would be needed to see some improvement at Wainuiomata, and more likely it would be two or more years before the population is thriving again. The second reason is that finding another site will take a lot of scoping, which takes time—Raewyn Empson [previous Conservation Manager] started having discussions about Wainuiomata way back in 2012. We would need to find a site with enough information about the population for a translocation to be considered, the managers there would need to agree, and we would then need to look at what new permits we would need and the logistical challenges.

Is March the only time of year to move these birds?

March was the best window for catching from the Wainuiomata site—we were constrained to about a three week time slot. On one side we were bounded by the cicada season (they are so loud the bird calls we play to attract rifleman in wouldn’t be successful), and on the other side due to the presence of hunters in the valley. It wouldn’t be safe to be out there into April and beyond. At another site we could look at different times of year, but we would need to avoid the depths of winter and the breeding season.           

Following the announcement, a number of people asked that since the birds population is declining in their source site this could be even more reason to do the translocation.  You explained that “it makes sense to allow it to rebuild its numbers rather than deplete them with a translocation. When there is an abundance of birds again we can look at revisiting the idea.”

What can you tell us about how you will be measuring the numbers in the Wainuiomata source site, and when the next assessment will be made?

The Greater Wellington Regional Council are the managers of the Wainuiomata site, and they will continue with the same monitoring they do every year. That is based on 5-minute bird counts. The Council have been doing these counts since 2005.    

As Tim mentioned in the Radio NZ interview, bird surveys do not tend to give absolute numbers of a species. Rather it is the relative change year to year, and the trends over time, that offer insights into management. Given that, the decision to postpone was ultimately based on the fact that rifleman numbers in the Wainuiomata area have dropped to below the level they were at before predator management ever began. That is really worrying, as it suggests the population is under a lot of pressure.

I guess the main thing is that this kind of conservation effort is hugely complex because we are working in highly variable ecological systems. We get glimpses into these systems through the data collected, but making decisions is incredibly challenging. Ultimately, we sat down with Greater Wellington Regional Council, weighed up all the risks, and made the decision that we did. Reflecting on this decision a week later, the data we have at hand, and all the expert advice we received, I feel confident we made the right call.

You have mentioned that you will be working with all ZEALANDIA’s partners over the next year to identify possible alternative places where tītipounamu are thriving for a possible translocation.

What areas are being considered?  Are any of the areas where previous translocations have been sourced from possible alternatives.

We are up against a number of geographical constraints when look for a source site. There are distinctive genetic groups across the country, for example, if you look north from the Manawatu River the species is distinctively different. So we need to focus our efforts nearby. At this point I am not really able to pin point exactly what our options are, but we will be making phone calls to DOC among other land managers to figure out what the possibilities might be.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I would really like to thank everyone who has supported us right from when the project was proposed, to now as we look at future possibilities. The staff at Greater Wellington Regional Council have been great, and they are dealing with some huge conservation challenges on their lands now. Taranaki Whānui have been there every step of the way, and would have been heavily involved in the translocation itself.

We have seen incredible generosity from our donors and supporters who, for the most part, are leaving their donations with us as we explore other options. We will of course be keeping them updated with progress on that front.

We had also lined up a vast number of volunteers with vast levels of expertise, Wellington City Council and DOC were to loan us vehicles for transporting birds, we had an amazing contractor lined up who has been involved in every previous rifleman translocation [Kari Beaven] and the list goes on. Finally, but certainly not least, our own conservation team really put their hearts and souls into making this project a success. The Wellington conservation community is truly amazing.


Photo: Rifleman by Brendon Doran
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