The flightless takahē (South Island takahē; Porphyrio hochstetteri), is the world’s largest living rail.
And now there is a double celebration for the takahē at Tāwharanui this summer. Firstly, we have a chick at the sanctuary that is doing very well and being cared for by very devoted parents. Secondly, the Takahē Recovery Program recently celebrated 75 years since a population of South Island takahē were discovered by Invercargill Doctor Geoffrey Orbell on 20th November 1948. He and some friends found the takahē in the remote grasslands of the Takahē Valley in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland.
A bit of history – which has been a bit confusing, as it had been assumed that they had migrated from Australia along with the pūkeko and the extinct North Island takahē known as moho. But thanks to a lot of research and genetic analysis, they may in fact be related to the African swamphen and were part of one of the earliest migration events. This migration was then followed by gigantism and flight loss likely due to abundance of food and no predators. Analysis also suggests they were very widespread but suffered a natural decline since the last major glacial period. The population was considered small during the 1800’s and then extinct by 1900, until their rediscovery in 1948.
Numbers continued to decline after the discovery, predation by mustelids, such as stoats, and feral cats, plus deer grazing on their food source will account for most of it. So, in 1985 Burwood takahē sanctuary in Te Anau was established as a breeding site and populations were established on islands such as Tiri Tiri Matangi. The program wasn’t particularly successful until 2010 when changes were made in the program, in particular, hand rearing was stopped and takahē parents reared their chicks and more pairs were put into sanctuaries such as our very own Tāwharanui. In 1981 there were just 124 birds left, today in the anniversary year there are 500.
These 500 are in 20 sites around the North and South islands, on Tāwharanui we have 2 pairs and now one chick. Nationally, volunteers and staff face a continued up hill battle against grazing deer and predators, but the ultimate goal is to have safe sites for self-sustaining wild populations. This is one of the longest running conservation programs in Aotearoa, and possibly the world. The story has been told by Alison Ballance in her book, “Takahē – Bird of Dreams” if you want to know more.
All the above information was supplied by the Takahē Recovery Program.