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Kakapo illness identified

13 July 2004

Kakapo illness identified

The bacterium that killed three juvenile kakapo in the last week was identified today as a virulent but easily-treated soil bacterium.

Massey University scientists identified the bacterium as erysipelas, which is new to kakapo, from microscope examinations of cultured liver tissue of autopsied birds.

The disease outbreak has to date claimed the lives of Aroha, Vollie and Aurora, all two-year-old females, shortly after their transfer last week to Te Kakahu (Chalky Island) in Fiordland National Park.

“The good news is that it’s not a mystery illness any more, it’s a defined illness with a clear course of action,” Conservation Department kakapo recovery team leader Paul Jansen said today.

“We expect a good response to treatment.”

All 23 kakapo on Te Kakahu – 11 females, 12 males - would now be tested for presence or absence of the bacterium, which would involve a two to three-day examination of faeces samples, Mr Jansen said.

The birds would also undergo five-day course of antibiotics, administered by independent veterinarians contracted to DOC. Non-infected birds would be inoculated with a vaccine to prevent any infection.

Erysipelas has been recorded previously in pigs and dolphins in New Zealand, and 10 years ago was responsible for deaths among takahe. Overseas it has been found in emu, turkeys and other poultry. It mainly affects young birds of these species.

Massey University veterinarians had advised DOC to review hygiene procedures to reduce as far as possible the risk of infection of humans and prevent spread of disease, Mr Jansen said.

Once birds were cured, it was considered unlikely that they would be reinfected, he said.

Today, DOC staff on Te Kakahu started building plywood pens to house individual kakapo for intensive medical care. Pen construction is expected to take at least two days.

The new information suggested that the disease was not carried from Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) to Te Kakahu during the bird transfer as had been mooted yesterday, Mr Jansen said.

The Te Kakahu birds died relatively suddenly unlike two birds on Whenua Hou that lost weight and developed diarrhoea over several days, one three months ago, and one in late June/early July, and which are recuperating from their illnesses.

“We have ruled out moving kakapo back to Whenua Hou for treatment, that’s why we’re setting up a bird hospital on Te Kakahu.”

Nineteen juveniles were transferred by helicopter from Whenua Hou to Te Kakahu in two batches on 3 July and 7 July to introduce them to a beech forest environment. It is hoped that the birds will learn to key into heavy seeding events in beech as an environmental trigger for breeding, to increase their breeding chances.

In the same operation, 12 adult birds on Te Kakahu were transferred back to Whenua Hou ahead of an expected heavy rimu fruiting event, a known breeding trigger.

With the three recent deaths, the kakapo population now stands at 83. Of that number, 56 are breeding adults (of which 12 are females and 35 are males), 21 are juveniles born in 2002, and the remaining six are older juveniles. Kakapo take eight to 10 years to reach breeding age. They may live at least 50 years.

The kakapo recovery programme has run along current lines since 1995, when only 50 birds were remaining. Identifying seeding events in forests was a major step in improving the breeding rate, which had been extremely low. In 1999 six chicks were born, and 24 chicks were born in 2002, of which 21 remain.


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