The world’s fattest parrot is facing an existential threat in the form of a dangerous fungal infection which has already endangered a fifth of its species.
Seven of New Zealand’s native kākāpō have died in recent months after falling victim to the respiratory disease aspergillosis. The latest was on Tuesday, where a 100-day-old chick died at the Auckland Zoo.
The nocturnal and flightless parrot ingratiated itself with world after it mated with a zoologist’s head during a BBC documentary. The incident led it to being described as the “party parrot” and finding a life-long fan in Stephen Fry.
Kākāpō, whose males can grow to 4.8 pounds (2.2kg), were once found in large numbers all over New Zealand. However, habitat destruction and pest invasion forced the bird to edge of extinction.
The discovery of a previously unknown population of kākāpō in the 1970s led to a resurgence of their numbers. The parrot was then the focus of a conservation effort that saw the bird’s population rise from a low of 51 ageing birds to three times that number.
This year, a team of more than 100 scientists, rangers and volunteers worked to make it the biggest breeding season on record.
Despite that effort, Auckland Zoo’s head of veterinary services Dr James Chatterton said the future of the birds hangs in the balance.
“They could all die,” he told Radio New Zealand. “Obviously we’re trying very hard for that not to be the case, but certainly with about 200 birds alive currently, every bird is valuable to the population, especially if we have another 10 or 20 sick or dying from this disease.”
The total population of kākāpō is currently 142 adults and 72 living chicks. All of these live on remote islands away from predators.
However, in late April, the first case of aspergillosis in the kākāpō population was detected. Since then 36 birds, or a fifth of their total numbers, have been sent to veterinary hospitals around the country for diagnosis and treatment.
“Kākāpō need our urgent support,” the Department of Conservation said in a statement.
The department said that detecting and treating birds with this potentially fatal disease was extremely difficult. Birds were flown by helicopter to mainland New Zealand for CT scans, and if affected, faced several months or more of intensive treatment.
Kākāpō supporters have donated at least NZ$100,000 to help their recovery, with more than half of donations coming from overseas.
Auckland Zoo said the severely ill kākāpō chick, Nora-1-A-2019, died after a last chance surgical procedure to enable her to breathe, following a serious lung infection and obstruction of her wind-pipe.
The minister of conservation Eugenie Sage told the Stuff news website: “Any time a kākāpō dies is sad for all of us.”