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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 July, 2004, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Rare birds killed by deadly bug
By Kim Griggs
in Wellington, New Zealand

Kakapo, Copyright Rob Suisted - Naturespic.com
Before the deaths, there were 86 kakapo left in New Zealand (Image: Rob Suisted)
Three of the world's most endangered birds have been killed by a severe bout of blood poisoning in New Zealand.

A deadly bug infected a group of kakapo parrots (Strigops habroptilus) on the offshore islands of Codfish and Chalky.

Before the infection, from a lethal strain of soil bacteria, there were only 86 kakapo left in the country.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) has responded swiftly to the outbreak, by giving the remaining birds emergency antibiotic treatment.

Young birds

"The birds have either ingested or have been infected in some way with the erysipelas bacterium. It goes straight into the blood stream and causes blood poisoning," says Paul Jansen, who leads the kakapo team at the DoC.

"The good news is that we know what it is and we have the right tools in place."

The three young female kakapo which died - Aroha, Aurora and Vollie - were hatched in the summer of 2002.

We are going to treat the hell out of them
Paul Jansen, DoC, New Zealand
They and 16 other young birds had just been transferred from the kakapo stronghold of Codfish Island (Whenua Hou), an island right at the bottom of New Zealand, to Chalky Island (Te Kakahu) in Fiordland.

Having found out what caused the birds' deaths, the DoC has swung into action to give all the 24 kakapo remaining on Chalky Island life-saving antibiotics, and to check on the well-being of those living on Codfish Island.

"We are building pens on Chalky Island and there is a team of people up the hill at the moment bringing down the first five females. They will be treated over the next five days and once they have done their course of antibiotics, they will go back out again," says Mr Jansen.

"We will take the first five in and regardless of whether they show any symptoms or not, we are going to treat the hell out of them."

The DoC had just finished juggling the kakapo - moving some juveniles to Chalky Island and transferring 12 older birds back to Codfish Island.

"We will still be running a process of screening on Codfish Island to make sure that that bug is not present in that population [but] we have had nobody exhibiting signs," Mr Jansen says.

Mystery infection

The DoC is unsure how the birds picked up the bacterium, but Mr Jansen says it could have happened during the transfer between the islands.

"There is a possibility that they picked up this bug on the path of the transfer, in the handling process, off somebody's clothes or even off their hands - because this is something that can actually inhabit humans as well," adds Mr Jansen.

Once kakapo roamed mainland New Zealand from sea level to the mountains; now they are confined to New Zealand's offshore islands.

Brett Gartell with dead Kakapo, Massey University
The three young female kakapo which died - Aroha, Aurora and Vollie - were hatched in the summer of 2002
The aim of the kakapo transfers was to ensure that all the birds on Codfish Island were the optimum age for mating in time for the next rimu mast, the prolific production of seed that is a known trigger for kakapo breeding.

The last time there was a rimu mast, back in 2002, 24 kakapo chicks were hatched, including the three which have just died.

The kakapo is a fat, green, musty-smelling nocturnal bird, which cannot fly but which can climb trees. The male's low mating boom - writer Douglas Adams called it the "heartbeat of the night" - can travel up to 5km.

The population dwindled to just 50 in the mid-1990s, but an intensive conservation effort has boosted kakapo numbers in the past few years.

The New Zealand conservationists are hoping their swift response will help contain this latest setback. "We don't want to go too far back," says Mr Jansen. "We don't want to go back down to 50, that's for sure."

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