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Conservation Takes Wing: New Zealand’s Kakapos Make a Model Recovery

Decades ago, few would have placed bets on the survival of the kakapo. Indigenous to New Zealand, kakapos are a rare flightless, nocturnal, and unusually large breed of parrot. They might be the world’s oldest living bird, and were once so abundant in the forests of New Zealand that 19th century explorers likened them to apples falling out of trees. But these flourishing populations were decimated by European settlers and by the 1970s, kakapo extinction seemed inevitable: Only 18 kakapos were recorded, all of which were male. Kakapos appeared to be yet another casualty in the global decline of biodiversity, a downturn that harms the health of global ecosystems and erodes important elements of indigenous cultures. 

In 1977, the miraculous discovery of an unknown kakapo population on one of New Zealand’s largest islands––a population that, mercifully, contained females––invigorated New Zealand’s public and spurred the launch of the New Zealand Wildlife Service’s Kakapo Recovery Program. This program has been extraordinarily successful in replenishing the kakapo population, using a combination of public donations and generous state funding to finance extensive conservation efforts. These efforts, which include creating predator-free sanctuaries and reproductive assistance for the birds, are a useful roadmap for combating the problem of declining biodiversity on an international scale. They prove that if other governments match New Zealand’s commitment to its endangered species, animal conservation could see unprecedented successes. 

The key to New Zealand’s success are the innovative technologies conservationists use to replenish the kakapo population. To combat infertility and a lack of genetic diversity among the kakapo population, conservationists have turned to artificial insemination (AI) technology. Last summer, scientists succeeded in artificially inseminating kakapos for the first time since 2009, a triumph that resulted from years of refining AI techniques. Artificially inseminating animals is difficult and expensive, but sustained investment in research into animal reproductive systems has worked in the past: AI is already a commonplace practice in the agriculture industry, which has used AI on horses, sheep, and cows since the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, knowledge of animal reproductive systems and reproductive technology in general has surged, and scientists have worked on reproductive assistance techniques to save endangered species, like the kakapo.

AI is particularly useful in the kakapo population because it allows scientists to select sperm donors with rare genes, thereby diversifying the genetic pool of the population and reducing further infertility struggles. These reproductive efforts are crucial additions to the other elements of kakapo conservation––while the current population, at 211 birds, is a dramatic increase from previous years, the population is still small enough that it is in constant peril of being wiped off the map. In 2019, for example, when 16 kakapos were diagnosed with a fungal disease called aspergillosis, conservationists worried that the disease could decimate the entire population. These fears, however, could be alleviated with the use of AI. 

For all of its recent successes, the idea of using artificial insemination and other forms of assisted reproduction to reverse the decline of endangered species has been met with heavy skepticism. The relentless efforts have been sometimes ridiculed in the media –– WIRED wrote in 2015 that “vials and vials of endangered animal sperm are just sitting around in liquid nitrogen in zoos across the country, waiting for the day the science catches up to the promise of their gooey contents.” Governments of countries from New Zealand to the United States to South Africa have provided generous funding for wildlife conservation, but budgets are still limited, and internal debates frequently erupt in the scientific community as to which species merit saving. Thus, allocating already-limited funds to animal reproductive science is more controversial than it might at first appear: why spend precious resources on an expensive conservation technique if it might not yield any results? 

This research quandary is part of a self-perpetuating cycle. Historically, humans have done little research into the reproductive systems of most animals, and we cannot assist reproduction without first knowing how it works. These gaps in knowledge have resulted in expensive failed attempts, which has fueled further criticism. But skeptics underestimate the rate of progress scientists have achieved in recent years with federal funding that matches the complex demands of conservation. If federal research grant funding was adjusted to reflect this fact, the vicious cycle could be broken.

A greater threat to the advancement of conservation efforts is the surge of anti-science sentiment in politics. For those who accept that climate change is a legitimate threat, combatting the decline in biodiversity is a clear priority: when species die out, it harms the health of global ecosystems. In recent years, however, climate science deniers have hijacked biodiversity efforts. At a May 2019 congressional hearing about the perils of declining biodiversity, conservative members of Congress invited witnesses to testify against an expert report that 1 million species were at risk of extinction.

These anti-science movements must be robustly countered by civil society, particularly at such a critical juncture for the advancement of AI. Governments around the world should pay attention to recent  successes and invest more in research into the reproductive biology of endangered species. In many instances, it might take decades to see these efforts pay off, but reproductive assistance is the last hope for many endangered species worldwide, particularly those whose fertility has been threatened by interbreeding among a tiny population. We invested billions of dollars in the last century to reach the moon –– if we match the persistence of kakapo conservationists, we can understand the intricacies of animal reproductive systems and ensure a biodiverse globe for centuries to come.