Kowhai ngutukaka, or kakabeak (Clianthus maximus) is one of New Zealand's native flowering plants, and a popular garden plant. Many of us grow a kakabeak in the garden, but in the wild there are only about 120 shrubs left, making kakabeak one of New Zealand's most threatened plants. It is so rare, in fact, that each wild plant has its own name.
The main threat is browsing. Kakabeak is part of the pea family and goats, pigs, deer, rabbits and snails (but not possums) like to eat young shoots, killing the plants before they can flower and set seed. One of New Zealand’s first native plant conservation programmes was created to protect kakabeak around Lake Waikaremoana, one of a few areas in the central North Island where it still holds on in the wild. In the Hawke's Bay, the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust has made it one of its goals to increase the number of kakabeak plants by propagating seed collected from local shrubs.
Trustee and forest manager Pete Shaw (pictured on the right) introduces Veronika Meduna to some of the local plants, including Edge, Whiteslip and Gareth, which are all clinging to a steep bluff in the privately-owned Maungataniwha native forest. They have been fenced in to protect them from browsing, and the trust has also established a nursery at the banks of the Waiau River, where seed collected from the local shrubs is planted. The first planting of nursery-grown kakabeak back into the wild took place in the winter of 2010, but the trust is also experimenting with a gunshot propagation method, which would mean that seed could be shot straight back into the cliff to germinate in place.
Barry Crene looks after kiwi in the Maungataniwha native forest, here changing a transmitter on a male bird. (image: J. Crampton)
Kakabeak conservation is only one aspect of the work carried out by the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, which is built around the native forests owned by Auckland businessman Simon Hall. Extensive predator control within a 600ha sanctuary keeps predators in check and creates a safer environment for a number of native species, including native mistletoe, the blue duck, or whio, and North Island Brown kiwi.
The Maungataniwha kiwi project is part of BNZ Operation Nest Egg (see also our story about rowi, New Zealand's rarest kiwi, above) and has produced nearly 200 North Island brown kiwi chicks that have been released back into the wild. Pictured above, Barry Crene changes a transmitter on a male kiwi called Sam. The birds are monitored so that their eggs can be removed and incubated, and the chicks are then reared in safety at the Cape Sanctuary at Cape Kidnappers, south of Napier, before being released.
The Maungataniwha forest also covers an area where amateur palaeontologist Joan Wiffen discovered many dinosaur and marine reptile fossils, and you can listen to our programme about a dinosaur fossil fieldtrip in the area, with Pete Shaw and GNS Science palaeontologists James Crampton and John Simes.