(Wellington) These iconic New Zealand birds are back: for the first time in a century, kiwis are strolling the green hills of Wellington, after a campaign to eliminate invasive predators that lurked around the capital city.

Anyone who would have walked the lands of New Zealand a millennium ago would have discovered a veritable ornithological paradise populated by feathered beings of all kinds evolving without the shadow of a predatory mammal.

But the arrival of Polynesian populations in the 13th century and then of Europeans changed the situation. The rats eliminated petrels and rales. The mice nibbled on all the seeds and berries they could find, leaving little for the birds to peck at.

Opossums, introduced for their fur, have stripped the trees. The rabbits reproduced so quickly that they devoured meadows and enclosures.

And as if that weren’t enough, stoats, imported to wipe out rabbits, eventually mowed down the populations of cave birds, thrushes, owls and quail.

As a result, the number of endemic, flightless New Zealand birds like the kakapo and kiwi plummeted. Only some 70,000 wild kiwis remain, according to the Ministry of Conservation, responsible for preserving the natural and historical heritage of the Pacific country.

And although the apterygiforme is a true symbol for their country, few New Zealanders have seen this bird in the wild with its long beak and brownish plumage, with wings too tiny to fly.

But thanks to more than 90 local initiatives to protect it nationwide, its population is growing again. Among them is the Capital Kiwi Project, a charity with millions of New Zealand dollars from government grants and private donations.

Since the beginning of the settlement of New Zealand, “we have had a special connection with the kiwi”, explains to AFP the founder and leader of the project, Paul Ward.

Kiwis “are at the heart of Maori myth”. Whether it’s “our sports teams, our rugby teams, our defense force and, even when we go abroad, we are called kiwis”.

“They are tough, resilient, adaptable, all values ​​associated with New Zealanders. But most of us have never seen a single kiwi. »

Wild kiwis disappeared from the Wellington region more than a century ago, according to Paul Ward.

To save them, therefore, it took sustained work. The organization first attacked their natural predators lurking in the undergrowth.

Local dog owners have been invited to training sessions to teach their walking animals to stay away from the precious birds.

The group also had to declare war on the stoats. Because while an adult kiwi can fend them off with its powerful, sharp paws and claws, a baby bird cannot, Ward explains.

Over 4,500 traps have been set in an area equivalent to some 43,000 football pitches in the hills around Wellington, resulting in the capture of 1,000 stoats so far.

After “the elimination of the stoats”, explains Mr. Ward, the number of these predators was sufficiently reduced to allow, in November 2022, to release a first group of kiwis.

The birds were carefully transported almost 500 kilometers from a captive breeding site to a school in Wellington, complete with a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony.

A silence fell over the crowd, 400 people who had never seen a kiwi before, when the first bird was released, says Paul Ward. “The power of that moment was palpable.”

Regular monitoring shows that this first generation is doing well.

“Two months after releasing the birds, we were delighted to see that they had gained weight,” Ward said.

“One of them had gained 400 grams, which is a considerable weight gain… There is plenty of food for them on these hills. »

Over the next five years, the project aims to release 250 birds.

Paul Ward wants their characteristic shrill cry to become part of the daily life of the inhabitants of the outskirts of the capital.

“It is our duty to watch over the animal that gave us its name,” he said. Otherwise, “we deserve to be renamed ‘idiots'”.