A Kiwi helping save the kiwi - Armed with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from Massey University, a doctorate from Oxford and 10 years experience with the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Hugh Robertson joined the Department of Conservation as a scientist for the Wellington Conservancy in 1989.
Two years later he was appointed as the co-ordinator of the newly formed Kiwi Recovery Programme and, since 2000, has co-ordinated national kiwi research and monitoring. Hugh is also a member of the Kiwi Recovery Group.
His many research initiatives with Save the Kiwi include projects to:
- identify and manage threats to Northland brown kiwi
- assess the status of the little spotted kiwi on Kapiti and other islands
- measure the impact of pest control operations on kiwi
- establish a new kiwi taxonomy
- investigate the health of kiwi
Hugh is also responsible for national kiwi monitoring data, which includes populations of banded birds, and helps manage Operation Nest Egg™ and analyse the results.
When not saving kiwi, Hugh advises the Kakerori Recovery Project in Rarotonga, writes field guides to birds in New Zealand, and spends time biking, hiking and doing things with his family.
Since the age of 11, Hugh has had a passion for bird study, and kiwi are perhaps one of the most interesting groups of species to work on. New technologies in the 1980s and 1990s allowed field-based research into their ecology to begin, and many of their mysteries began to unravel. When the Bank of New Zealand sponsorship began in 1991, Hugh leapt at the opportunity to work with kiwi.
A high point was field work with his golden labrador, Olly. Trained to work with kiwi, Olly was a first-class field assistant before his retirement in May 2003. ‘He found two juveniles on his last day of work, one bird last seen in its nest in February 2002, and the other a completely new individual.’ It was, says Hugh, a fitting finale for a great dog.
A low point was when Olly died of a stroke just one year after retiring. Other low points have been having so many Northland study birds killed by farm and pet dogs, and having to have a non-treatment area as part of the scientific rigour of a study, which means standing by while these unprotected chicks get killed by stoats and cats.
Thoughts for the future
Hugh says that when kiwi recovery work began back in 1991, ‘we really knew very little about the ecology of kiwi, the threats they faced, and whether we would be able to prevent them joining the moa and huia on the list of extinct species. We have come a long way, and now have the tools to be confident that we will not lose any species of kiwi, but the real challenge is to further spread the network of places where kiwi are protected as part of healthy ecosystems’.