Cliff scramble gives critically rare plant a shot at survival
Conservationists boost national population by a third in a single day
Conservationists have boosted by a third the number of endangered Kakabeak plants known to exist in the wild in New Zealand. Staff at the Forest Lifeforce Restoration (FLR) Trust used a helicopter and abseiled down cliffs to dig 35 of the plants with the spectacular curved, crimson flowers into bluffs in the Te Urewera National Park, overlooking the Maungataniwha Native Forest in inland Hawke’s Bay.
Until now, just 110 Kakabeak (ngutukākā in te reo) plants were known to exist in the wild. Five of those are on the Waiau Bluffs where they have been joined by the 35 transplants, protected from predatory browsers by sheer rock faces and fences erected by the Trust.
“This is probably one of the more dramatic replants at a wild site attempted for the species,” said Don McLean, head of the Kakabeak Recovery Team at the Department of Conservation (DOC). “New methods of establishing Kakabeak in the wild are vital if we’re to successfully place the plants beyond the reach of browsers. The ultimate long-term aim is really to get plants established on sites where they can mature and reproduce in relative safety.”
The 35 plants were propagated at Plant Hawke’s Bay Nursery in Napier from cuttings and seed taken by the Trust, under Department of Conservation (DOC) supervision, from a selection of wild Kakabeak across the region.
They were grown to about 300mm in height before being given a ‘haircut’ to promote root growth, then flown to the transplant site where they were lowered in fish bins with a long strop to Trust staff who had abseiled to a scree slope about 150 metres above the Waiau Gorge.
“It was pretty precarious mission,” said FLR Trust forest manager Pete Shaw. “The chopper was being buffeted by strong winds and we were inching along this scree above some fairly significant drops, digging holes to put the plants into.”
The Kakabeak were planted in three lots about 20 metres apart, in a varied genetic mix.
“We know it’s a good place for them,” Shaw said. “They’re in with the five original plants and the terrain, along with the new fences we’ve installed, will ensure they’re not picked off by predatory browsers like deer.”
He hopes there will be further natural regeneration outside the protected area when the new plants seed in October this year.
The FLR Trust has already established two Kakabeak seed orchards in protected enclosures at its property in the Maungataniwha Native Forest. Shaw hopes the rejuvenated population on the Waiau Bluffs will provide a third source of seed for further propagation and transplantation.
Trust staff are in the process of perfecting a groundbreaking technique to propagate the plants by blasting seeds from a shotgun into likely nursery sites in the wild.
Staffer Barry Crene developed the technique using re-loaded shotgun shells packed with regular shotgun pellets, a pulp medium and Kakabeak seed. The shells were then discharged into soil from a range of 20 metres, about the distance a helicopter might have to hover from likely nursery sites in the wild.
As with the Waiau Bluffs, such sites are frequently patches of topsoil on bluffs or cliff faces that are as inaccessible to humans as they are to browsers. Helicopters are often the only way to reach them.
This innovation will create the potential for an aerial propagation effort on a scale that hasn’t yet been possible.
“Anything that helps us expand the population of this spectacular plant without having to dangle 150 metres above a rocky river bed has to be a good thing,” Shaw said.