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  • Writer's pictureForest Lifeforce

Rare find boosts hope for Kakabeak

Remote colony quadruples known numbers

A conservation trust leading the drive to prevent the extinction of the flamboyant Kakabeak (Clianthus maximus or ngutukākā in te reo) helped discover an important far-flung colony of the plants less than a week before being presented with a national award for its work with the critically-endangered plant.

Forest Lifeforce Restoration (FLR) Trust forest manager Pete Shaw found 14 Kakabeak at Ruakituri, a part of inland Hawke’s Bay where only six wild plants had previously been known to exist. The find came a few days before the Trust was presented with a Special Award at the 2013 New Zealand Plant Conservation Network Awards for its work with Kakabeak.

Four more Ruakituri plants were discovered subsequently by Department of Conservation (DOC) staff.

Wild Kakabeak have been decimated by goats, deer and other exotic browsers, to the extent that the species now holds New Zealand’s highest possible threatened plant ranking: ‘Nationally Critical’. Until recently only 110 plants were known to exist in the wild across the entire country. Although Kakabeak are grown widely in gardens these domestic plants are all derivatives of a few wild plants. They have been interbred and have little or no genetic value.

The find is significant because it widens the pool of wild-grown seed that can be used in the FLR Trust’s propagation effort. The Hawke’s Bay-based Trust runs the largest Kakabeak propagation and restoration programme in the country and has four seed nurseries. These have now produced hundreds of juvenile Kakabeak which staff have started planting on conservation land.

Shaw had been on a five-day DOC-led field trip to explore Ruakituri and to see if they could spot any previously unrecorded Kakabeak specimens.

“This is the time of the year when the plants are heavy with spectacular bunches of curved crimson flowers, so it’s an ideal time to spot them,” he said. “We’re stoked about the find because it trebles the number of individuals known to exist in this very distinct genetic population group and means the population as a whole has a much stronger chance of being pulled back from the brink than we originally thought.”

“The work the FLR Trust is doing with Kakabeak, which it initiated, is unprecedented and instrumental in expanding our collective knowledge about how to look after this magnificent but highly endangered part of our natural heritage,” said New Zealand Plant Conservation Network President Sarah Beadel. “Our special award acknowledges this great work.”

But Shaw and FLR Trust Chairman Simon Hall are keen to share the honours.

“We have huge support from organisations like DOC, Landcare Research, the Royal New Zealand Airforce and landowners around the region,” Hall said. “Also from individuals like Landcare geneticist Dr Gary Houliston, Marie Taylor in Napier and countless others who give generously of their time and expertise.”

As well as its work on Kakabeak propagation, the FLR Trust is fast carving out a name for itself with the Maungataniwha Kiwi Project, one of the most prolific kiwi conservation initiatives in the country, and the re-establishment of native plants and forest on 4,000 hectares currently, or until recently, covered in exotic pine plantation.

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