Inspiring communities to protect kea, New Zealand's unique mountain parrot

Captive Kea

Kea are held in New Zealand captive facilities for three main purposes:
Advocacy - to raise public awareness of kea; the issues facing the species in the wild and the ways in which people can help protect them
Research - utilising captive individuals to better understand the species and threats to the species through controlled and ethical trials
Potential Insurance population - holding a viable, genetically and behaviourally robust population for supplemetation of the wild population should the need be identified
A permit is required to hold kea in captivity within New Zealand. Permits are managed by the Department of Conservation and are issued for a 5 year term. Currently there are just over 60 kea held in 20 registered facilities throughout New Zealand (2013). The number of kea held has reduced from 102 in 2002 due to an aging population. Many of these kea are genetically important and may potentially be used in future breeding programmes.

New increased husbandry standards as detailed in the 2010 Kea Husbandry Manual (developed by the KCT), will ensure that holding of kea in the future is restricted to facilities which are able to achieve high standards of management and housing. Enforcement of these standards will be the responsiblity of DOC who will conduct 5 yearly audits prior to issuing of holder permits.
Kea Husbandry Manual 2010

Captive Kea for Advocacy

Captive kea provide an opportunity for people to learn about, understand and empathise with their wild counterparts. Kea in the wild are often considered a nuisance and as such are still persecuted because of their propensity to investigating and destroying huma property.

Fostering understanding and tolerance for species which are so interactive is vitally important for their continued survival. It is only through changing perceptions of kea as well as changing peoples behaviours when they encounter them in the wild that kea will be protected in the future.

However to ensure the public are inspired to make these critical changes in awareness and behaviour, their experience with kea in captivity must be one that is inspiring. This can only be achieved through ensuring individual facilities enclosures and husbandry techniques are of a standard that positively fulfills the species physical and psychological requirements and immerse and enthuses the public.
Cincinnati Zoo kea in their public walk through enclosure
Face to face at Paradise Valley, photo by Paradise Valley
The World Association of Zoos and Aquaria (WAZA) promotes the importance of zoos to connect the public to conservation initiatives in the wild. For NZ zoos to connect their kea to the public and as a result, make real conservation impact, they must:
Ensure best practice management of kea (daily husbandry, training and conditioning and daily (unpredictable) enrichment)
Ensure a complex environment which encourages performance of natural behaviours and discourages unnatural stereotypic behaviours (which are evidence of a poor environment)
Provide clear links to conservation of kea in the wild (through signage, keeper talks and links to conservation organisations working directly with kea)
Provide opportunities for direct conservation involvement and communicating these to their visitors

Kea as a ‘High Priority Species’

Priority species include the great apes, wolves and... kea!
High priority species are those which have complex environmental demands in the wild. These demands can impact on survival and as such, the ability of the individual to make complex cognitive decisions is crucial for survival. Generalist species adapted to an extreme environment, species with complex social structures and/or those which exhibit complex anti-predator behaviours, are all required to make decisions from information previously learned and interpreted. These factors can make them difficult to hold well in captivity.

Kea are considered to be highly intelligent and have developed to survive in a complex environment. As such they fall into the category of a 'high priority species' requiring high levels of complexity and novelty in their environments to prevent abnormal repetitive behaviours (stereotypies).

To ensure abnormal behaviours do not develop they must be provided with an environment that is highly variable in its design and in enrichment items introduced within it. Any enrichment programme must be highly variable, evolving and adaptable and encompass the keas physiological, psychological and social requirements. Where possible, routines should be flexible to ensure the reduction of any anticipatory behaviour.

As any degree of stereotypic performance has been linked with a deficit in the captive environment, it may be concluded that there are potential welfare issues in holding kea in captivity that require careful management.

Captive Kea for Research

The captive population provides a unique opportunity for researchers to conduct behavioural observations and tests to better manage kea and kea threats in the wild.

All research projects must go through an extensive ethic approvals process, managed by Department of Conservation and either the research facilities own Animal Ethics Committees and/or the kea holders organisation. The majority of kea research projects centre around observations of the animals behaviour to a specific stimulus or to investigate specific behaviours. Projects which the KCT has utilised the kea population to date include:
Response to a repellent combination introduced into pre-feed pellets (to dissuade kea ingesting 1080 pellets in the wild)
Response to a surface repellent combination applied to a variety of objects (to dissuade kea from interacting with pest control bait stations and traps)
Response to a surface stoat repellent (to ensure kea are not repelled from areas where it is applied)
Investigation of nesting behaviour and tracking of developmental stages from hatch to fledging (to provide a resource to aid in aging of chicks in wild nests)
Investigation of captive behaviours and relationship to management techniques
All of these projects have provided important information influencing the management of both wild and captive kea.

Captive Breeding

Many of the kea currently held in captive institutions are genetically important and may potentially be used in future breeding programmes.

At present there is limited and highly selective breeding of kea as directed by the Species Coordinator. Although breeding is necessary to preserve maximum genetic diversity and normal kea reproductive behaviours, there will continue to be only limited breeding until all holders are up to minimum captive standards to ensure welfare is not compromised.

Captive Kea as Insurance Population

Reputable zoos globally, work cooperatively under regional umbrella organisations to hold self-sustaining ex-situ populations of threatened species.

These populations are sometimes viewed and managed as insurance populations; preserving important genetics for potential reintroduction to boost wild populations which have catastrophically declined (e.g due to high magnitude stoat irruptions, disease outbreaks etc).

A genetically viable captive kea population, if managed carefully, could serve as an insurance population.


Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date