The Conservation Conversation

Canine Superheroes Join the Fight to Save the Kiwi

Kiwi Hunt

In the first year of partnership with the Department of Conservation (DOC), Kiwibank supported a pilot to boost the Conservation Dogs Programme that helps our endangered species such as kiwi, whio, takahē, kākāpō and more. To increase DOC’s capacity for quarantine patrols and surveillance, the New Zealand bank funded two new positions: a pest detection dog handler and a species detection dog certifier. 

This September, Kiwibank and DOC celebrated a year of working together by heading to Taupo for the Wairakei Kiwi Operation. On the 19th and 20th, species dog handlers and their four-legged workmates from all over the country, came together to track three lost kiwi on the course at Wairakei Golf and Sanctuary.

Saving our species, one kiwi at a time

Andrew Glaser, one of DOC’s dog handlers based in Opotiki (and also the talented photographer behind these snaps), explains that it can take one to three years to train a fully confident and highly efficient species dog. Andrew has been handling Beau for three years and took him to Taupo to join the operation. 

“This golf course is like nothing else in the world. You can play golf amongst threatened species because it’s surrounded by 16km of predator-proof fence.” 

He says that as part of the partnership with Kiwibank, DOC unleashed its conservation dogs to locate three kiwi that had lost their transmitters on the course.

Species Dog sniffs out lost Kiwi

The Wairakei Kiwi Operation saw six expert dog handlers come together from places such as the Far North, Coromandel, and Wellington, to assist Andrew and Beau, and his other older dog, Neo. 

“We ran the operation as a coordinated incident management system,” he says, “where we strategically broke the 184 hectares into sectors."

"To try to find a kiwi in that space is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” 

Working into the wind and using a pattern to make sure they cover the ground thoroughly, handlers wear GPS to make sure there are no gaps. 

And it works. 

One of the kiwi was found on the first evening – a female weighing an impressive 3kg. There had been four prior unsuccessful attempts to find the lost kiwi prior to the introduction of conservation dogs. 

Good dogs, great handlers

Dog handler teams have been used for conservation in New Zealand for more than 40 years to help monitor protected species – birds like the kiwi, pāteke, blue duck/whio and kea - and protect islands from introduced pests – such as the pest free Hauraki Gulf islands. 

Beau, Andrew’s German shorthaired pointer, is new to the force but he was still able to find four kiwi chicks in three hours – they just weren’t the kiwi they were looking for. 

That was one of the major challenges of the operation: The Wairakei Golf Course serves as a sanctuary to many kiwi, making it difficult for the dogs to track the scent of the lost ones. So, Andrew hatched a plan with Taupo based Department of Conservation Biodiversity Ranger Renee Potae. Renee explains that while they have transmitters on the birds, because it’s technology created by humans, it’s prone to fail. It’s her view that the dog teams are the only things that truly help. “We’ve used dogs in places where there are no transmitters,” she adds. “Even in places like the golf course with the predator-free fence, technology isn’t always the best answer. The dogs are the real heroes here.” 

The sweet smell of success

All in all, the operation was a success: two of the three missing kiwi were found. We asked Andrew to quantify the value of the conservation dogs, but he said while DOC measures it each year, there hasn’t been enough data collected. Even without the stats, he knows the importance of this programme by heart. “This support is integral to the work we do, not just protected species dogs, but pest detection dogs that protect our offshore islands and keep them pest-free by regular visits and surveillance.” 

He adds that using dogs increases accuracy by at least 45%. 

“New Zealand is a world leader in dog conservation programmes. Having a commercial partner like Kiwibank - a Kiwi company that is dedicated to protecting what is intrinsically Kiwi – is such a nice natural fit.”

The Conservation Dogs and their talented handlers are active all over New Zealand. You might be lucky enough to meet them at wharfs, ferry terminals, island and mainland sanctuaries, in the national parks or perhaps even at your local Kiwibank branch so keep an eye out when you're exploring our backyard!

Want to find out more? Stay up to date with the programme by visiting the Dog Programme section on DOC's website or check out Kiwibank’s social media channels.