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Kakapo Lee regains health at Auckland Zoo

Auckland City Council

Media release

24 October 2008

Kakapo Lee regains health at Auckland Zoo

Lee, a male kakapo suffering from weight loss and toxic levels of lead in his system, is now fighting fit and ready to return to the wild after a two-month stay at Auckland Zoo’s New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine (NZCCM).

One of the original 24 founder male kakapo from Stewart Island, Lee was moved from Codfish Island to Anchor Island (Fiordland) in April this year along with one other kakapo. In August, when Department of Conservation (DOC) staff were doing a regular catch-up and health check they found he had lost a significant amount of weight. Blood and other health tests gave no indication of the reason for his weight change, which dropped more than 1kg further to just 1.2kg – so in late August Lee was flown to Auckland Zoo.

“When Lee arrived, we didn’t have tremendous expectations for him because we didn’t know what was wrong with him, and he was at a dangerously low weight,” says Auckland Zoo vet Dr John Potter, who, with the rest of the zoo’s vet team, provides veterinary services for the kakapo recovery programme.

“ All Lee’s other blood test results were good and we eliminated the probability of a tumour, but our test for lead revealed toxic levels in his system,” says Dr Potter. “We successfully treated this with Calcium EDTA, a compound that helps bind the lead in the blood, reduces its toxic effect and is then able to be excreted.

“It’s hugely pleasing to see Lee so healthy now. He’s put up with twice-daily tube feedings to enable us to get his weight up to more than 1.7kg, and for a bird that’s been held in captivity for the first time, he’s really pretty chilled out. We won’t know fully how he is until he’s been back in the wild for a couple of months, but he’s off to a pretty good start.”.

The source of the lead ingested by Lee is unknown, but DOC’s technical support officer for the National Kakapo Team, Daryl Eason, says lead is a common contaminant in the environment and the source could be something like a fisherman’s sinker or gunshot.

“Lee’s situation appears to be an isolated one, as all our other kakapo on both Anchor Island and Codfish Island are in good health, with no weight loss. However, as a precaution, we are now blood testing and performing routine health checks,” says Mr Eason.

Lee is bound for Codfish Island – his old stomping ground for 25 years, not Anchor Island, where he was moved to in April.

“We think he’ll settle in very quickly,” says Mr Eason. “While he will likely lose up to 200g with the stress of travelling back, we expect he’ll put on quite a bit of weight within a short period. Like all our birds, Lee will be fitted with a transmitter, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on him.”

Lee, one of just 91 kakapo in the world, was found on Stewart Island in 1983 and is at least 25 years old. DNA results indicate that he could have bred in the past as his genes are represented in other birds, though he has not been observed breeding.

“After this winter’s setback, it’s unlikely he’ll breed this year, but he still has plenty of time for that,” says Mr Eason.

Notes to Editor

Second kakapo at Auckland Zoo
Auckland Zoo’s NZCCM vet team is also treating a female kakapo, Sarah, who was flown from Codfish Island to Auckland Zoo on Tuesday 21 October. Sarah has an ulcerated cloaca (most likely by injuring herself on a sharp stick) and weight loss associated with this injury. Sarah will remain at the NZCCM until her wound heals and she regains weight.

About the kakapo
The critically endangered kakapo is the rarest parrot species in the world.
Total population: 91 on two islands – Codfish Island (Whenua hou) off the north west coast of Stewart Island, and Anchor Island in Dusky Sound, Fiordland.

Kakapo live many decades. How long is uncertain, but mortality figures indicate that the average life span is 90 years. Most of the founders from Stewart Island were found as adults between 1980 and 1989. The last remaining Fiordland male was found in 1975.

There are 44 female and 47 male kakapo. Twenty females and 23 males originate from Stewart Island, and one male comes from Fiordland. The rest have been produced on sanctuary islands, primarily since 1997. No other kakapo are known to survive in their original habitat, due to predation by cats, stoats and rats.

Breeding: The kakapo population reached an all-time low of 51 birds in 1995. Earlier this year (2008) six chicks were produced from five nests on Codfish Island, a minor breeding season.

A large breeding season is anticipated next year on Codfish Island as a result of a heavy crop of rimu fruit now forming on the trees. Breeding seasons in successive years is unusual. The last large breeding season was in 2002, when 24 chicks were produced.


Auckland Zoo is an enterprise of Auckland City Council. It is home to the largest collection of native and exotic wildlife species in New Zealand (over 1300 animals and 179 species) and attracts over half a million visitors annually. It is becoming increasingly well known nationally and internationally through the award-winning television programme, 'The Zoo'. At the heart of all Auckland Zoo's work and activities is its mission: "to focus the Zoo’s resources to benefit conservation and provide exciting visitor experiences which inspire and empower people to take positive action for wildlife and the environment". Auckland Zoo is a member of both the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks & Aquaria (ARAZPA) and the World Association of Zoos & Aquariums (WAZA).

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