• The kakī – the world’s rarest wading bird – is only found on New Zealand’s South Island.
  • In the early 1980s, just 23 remained in the wild; an intensive conservation programme means there are now 169.
  • Other species like the kakapo parrot, pink pigeon and golden lion tamarin are also recovering their numbers.
  • Yet biodiversity loss is among the top five risks facing the world, according to this year’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report.

With its elegant black plumage and long pink legs, the kakī might not look like the hardiest of creatures. But what it endures every winter is the definition of resilience.

As temperatures drop to -20°C, other birds living in New Zealand’s Southern Alps up and leave. But the kakī, also known as the black stilt, sticks it out.

Despite this resolve, the species has found it hard to survive introduced threats. Non-native predators like ferrets and feral cats are its main problem. Habitat degradation doesn’t help.

By the early 1980s, there were 23 adults left in the wild, and today the kakī remains the world’s rarest wading bird. But while those numbers put it on the critically endangered list, things are looking up.

Adult Kakī with New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, in the background. (Photo by Liz Brown)
The kakī is found in the braided rivers and wetlands of the Mackenzie Basin on New Zealand’s South Island.
Image: Liz Brown (DOC)

‘Living treasure’

The kakī is only found in the Mackenzie Basin area of New Zealand’s South Island. The country’s indigenous Maori population considers it to be a “living treasure”.

The government recognizes its importance, too. Four decades ago, the Department of Conservation (DOC) began intensively managing the bird. It collects and incubates eggs from both wild and captive pairs, and raises the chicks at a breeding centre in the basin. Juveniles venture into the wild at about nine months.

The habitat they’re released into is monitored and also made safe using natural barriers to keep predators at bay.

The breeding centre releases kakī into the wild at about nine months old.
Image: Global Wildlife Conservation

This meticulous work is paying off. According to the Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), which funded an expansion that doubled the number of birds the centre can hatch and house, the adult population has recently jumped 30% to 169. It’s the largest increase in the scheme’s history.

The new facilities could help the project release an extra 60 kakī into the wild every year, GWC says.

“There are 40 more adult birds living and breeding in the wild than this time last year,” New Zealand’s Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said of the scheme. She called the news “a tribute to nearly four decades of protection, research and intensive management.”

Bouncing back

The kakī isn’t the only endangered species making a comeback in New Zealand. Last year, the population of kakapo – the heaviest parrot in the world – reached 213 adults, the highest number in more than 70 years.

And similar efforts are bringing animals back from the brink across the globe.

Among them is the pink pigeon, which once flourished on the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. By the 1970s only about a dozen remained, owing to habitat loss and introduced predators. But after a programme of captive breeding and habitat management the population is now about 380 birds.

Brazil’s golden lion tamarin has a similar story. There were once just 200 of these tiny monkeys, but an intensive conservation scheme has helped numbers rise to 2,500. And the West Virginia northern flying squirrel in the United States has bounced back from 10 known individuals in the 1980s to more than 1,100 today.

Stark warning

Protecting the planet’s amazing array of plant and animal species has never been more crucial. This year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report named biodiversity loss among its top five risks.

That’s because biodiversity – all the different kinds of life you'll find in one area – is essential to food, jobs and medicine. More than half of the world’s GDP ($44 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature.

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

In the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

These trends have reduced diversity in our diets, which is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

One initiative which is bringing a renewed focus on biological diversity is the Tropical Forest Alliance.

This global public-private partnership is working on removing deforestation from four global commodity supply chains – palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

The Alliance includes businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people and communities, and international organizations.

Enquire to become a member or partner of the Forum and help stop deforestation linked to supply chains.

But a recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services carried a stark message: about 1 million species are now threatened with extinction. For many, this could happen within decades.

Effective measures to conserve biodiversity will be essential to the world meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the organisation says.

It’s a huge challenge. But each species saved is a step closer – and every one of New Zealand’s 169 kakī is playing its part.