After 11 years of sniffing kiwis to save them from extinction, now is the time for the conservation dog Rein, to put her paws up and get some much needed rest.
Rein, a Hungarian Vizsla who was a member of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Conservation Dog Program, is retiring this month.
She and her handler Iain Graham are helping conserve rowi, the rarest kiwi species, as part of Operation Nest Egg, a multi-agency effort to increase the kiwi population.
Graham said Rein found 1,700 kiwis in his day and was instrumental in the program, which increased the rowi population from 160 to 600 birds and led to the reclassification of the critically endangered species. nationwide from extinction to vulnerable in 2017.
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His last trip before retiring will be to the predator-free nursery island, Motuara, in the Marlborough Sounds, to watch for young birds.
Graham said he had worked with the DOC kiwifruit team in Franz Josef for four years as a biodiversity ranger when he had Rein as a puppy in early 2010.
“I have always thought of buying a vizsla for hunting or just as an adventure companion,” he said. “It was a breed of dog that interested me a lot because they are known as a good all-round hound.”
He got Rein from a DOC colleague in Hamilton and quickly saw his potential to become a conservation dog.
He gave him this name because of the rain on the West Coast, but also to reflect the control needed to be a conservation dog.
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Graham’s goal was for Rein to be specifically trained to safely stalk kiwis in the wild for Operation Nest Egg.
Operation Nest Egg helped bring Rowi’s people back to the brink of extinction in a small area of lowland forest in the interior of Ōkārito in the southwest of the country.
The eggs are removed from the forest for safe hatching, as kiwi chicks are targeted by predators like stoats.
They are hatched at the West Coast Wildlife Center, then taken to Christchurch’s Willowbank Wildlife Sanctuary for about two months before traveling to Motuara Island.
They are released into the wild on the West Coast once they are large enough to repel predators.
The Ōkārito forest has become so full that kiwis have now been released in a new area of the Omoeroa Ranges, north of Franz Josef.
Graham said he taught Rein basic dog obedience as well as how to behave around kiwis using positive reinforcement and kiwi feathers in the yard.
“His dynamism was already strong enough. Initially, the training focuses on the link with the owner. She took her first exam when she was seven months old, young for any conservation dog, ”he said.
Each released bird is equipped with a transmitter that monitors its behavior.
“When we see a 50% drop in feeding activity, we know they’re nesting. Male and female Rowi feed for 10 hours a night and they share the incubation, so when it falls to five, we know they have an egg, ”he said.
After about 30 days, Graham and Rein go to the stove to find the eggs.
“All the birds have transmitters on them, so we find them with some ranging equipment, but with Rein, she saves about half an hour to find where the birds are hiding. You approach within 100 yards and she will tell you exactly where they are hiding.
When it finds the nest, it stops and points with its front paw.
Kidney works during the six months of the breeding season, but does not rest for the other half of the year.
She goes to Motuara Island to watch the chicks and also tracks kiwis every 12 to 14 months for a battery change on their transmitters.
“When transmitters go down, that’s when she really gets to work helping us find birds that don’t have transmitters,” Graham said.
One of his biggest accomplishments was finding a new population of Haast Tokoeka in 2019.
“We didn’t know they were there, but in 2018 we heard a faint call on one of the acoustic recording devices that we set up in the area… so we took Rein out and she found three pairs of Tokoeka. It was an important discovery, ”he said.
The population has now grown to 14 pairs.
Graham said it was time for Rein to retire after 10 years in the field. He has another vizsla called Brew, who has gradually gained more and more weight on Kidney.
“Now she comes on stage where she loves the sofa more than before. She will always come hiking and camping with us, but retirement will give her a better chance to relax, ”he said.