Google makes 'significant' donation to kākāpō conservation

kakapo new zealand native bird google department conservation
After a bumper season last year, the kākāpō population now sits at 154 (Getty)

New Zealand's kākāpō recovery programme has been given a major shot in the arm thanks to a significant "out-of-the-blue" donation from internet giant Google.

The money would be enough to feed one island population of the native, endangered, flightless parrot for a year, or to cover around half of the annual cost of the artificial insemination programme.

Department of Conservation science advisor for kākāpō Dr Andrew Digby says the "significant" donation came unannounced in an email from the company's Street View manager.

Google confirmed it donated $8000 to the programme as part of its annual Giving Week. The kākāpō had caught the eye of product manager Stafford Marquardt.

"I'm originally from Hawai'i, where we also have a number of threatened endemic birds," he said. "Someday I hope we can help return kākāpō to the mainland islands!"

Mr Marquardt, who has visited some of New Zealand's wildlife reserves, said he was impressed by the country's "groundbreaking" conservation efforts, and his colleagues were equally enthusiastic.

"We did get donations from folks all around the world - it was absolutely amazing to see people join in to support kākāpō." 

Dr Digby said Google's contribution was extremely useful.

"It's the amount of money that would fund a significant part of our programme. When we have a breeding season we feed the birds on the island and [the donation] provides the cost of supplementary food for one island for a year, so that's the sort of stuff that's really helpful to us," he says.

There are three main populations of the bird - the heaviest in the world - on Codfish Island (Whenua Hou), Little Barrier Island (Hauturu o Toi) and Anchor Island.

The money hadn't been earmarked for any particular project, and Dr Digby didn't expect the money to come with conditions.

"It's often easier for us to use it where we see fit, rather than having to use it for a particular thing."

However, it would allow their work to go beyond the core functions the programme gets government and sponsorship money for.

"We have our core operating money which pays for a lot of logistics stuff - getting to and from islands and that sort of thing, but we have discrete projects too and these sort of donations enable us to go beyond our core work a little bit and push things on so we can do research programmes."

More birds, same funding

Kākāpō aren't known as prolific breeders - they do so every two or three years and their decision to mate is based largely on how much food is around.

Females can lay up to four eggs a year, but their fertility rate is quite low - only around half of all eggs laid hatch each year.

Last year, 132 eggs were laid with just 32 hatching as chicks.

That included a female producing a chick for the first time since 1981.

"To have offspring 35 years apart is amazing, really," Dr Digby says.

He says work is being done this week to count the number of rimu fruit on trees, which will give conservationists an idea of how much seed available for eating, and therefore whether breeding will likely take place.

This year, it was almost certain no breeding would happen, Dr Digby said.

The conservation programme has been somewhat a victim of its own success. Last year's hatchlings increased the population by 24 percent.

"But our funding stays the same and suddenly we have 24 percent more birds to manage, which means more transmitters which is a huge cost every year and more work for us."

Kākāpō's international reputation

Dr Digby was glad the bird's plight was becoming known around the world and it seemed to be increasing.

"It's really nice when we get people all around the world raising money for us, it's quite heartening to know that people in America care and know what a kākāpō is."

He says the goal is for the kākāpō to be among the world's most well-known animals.

"Every kid in the world knows what a lion is or what an elephant is and we have this goal of wanting every kid to know what a kākāpō is too."

It seems to be working.

A nine-year-old American girl recently told friends and family to donate to the cause rather than buying her birthday presents.

"This is just a nine-year-old kid in the middle of America who would never probably ever see a kākāpō in her life but had read about them online and fallen in love with them. That's really cool for us."