Picture a land cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. It is lush and green, with food aplenty. There are no natural predators – in fact, the animals that do live there have grown so accustomed to living in peace that they have lost any natural defensive capabilities. You might think of this place as a sort of real-world Hobbiton. Which, in 2016, is exactly what it is.
New Zealand broke off from the super continent Gondwana 65 million years ago. Some species were carried out to sea, others flew to the island over its long period of isolation, but no matter how they got there, all who stayed evolved far away from mammals (give or take a bat or two). Consequently, the islands became dominated by birds and bugs. For 65 million years New Zealand was completely devoid of mainland threats like large reptiles and mammalian predators. This created a unique situation. Over time, the very thing that had allowed birds to colonize the islands in the first place became redundant. Flight – their one distinct advantage over other large vertebrates – had become unnecessary. It was in this environment shaped by isolation, limited space, and an absence of things that might want to eat them, that one particularly exceptional parrot evolved – the kakapo.
Also known as the night parrot, the kakapo has a lot to recommend it to the imagination. It was a favorite animal of the late Douglas Adams, and is basically the bird version of a hobbit (which is fitting considering their shared homeland). The kakapo is plump, awkward, and largely solitary. It has long since traded its ability to leave New Zealand for the capacity to eat large amounts of delicious food and live in relative comfort. Outsiders are not something the kakapo has much experience dealing with – when it has to deal with them, it does so exceptionally poorly. There are female kakapos, but you’ll have to take my word for it because you’ll probably never see one (this analogy can be extended to Entwives, dwarf women, and really Middle Earth females in general). Nevertheless, this stout flightless parrot does have one very un-hobbit-like characteristic. The kakapo has never learned to fear.
Unfortunately, this is a trait many native island creatures share – like the kakapo, they have not been able to cope with the influx of outside predators brought by the modern world. The creatures of New Zealand lived far away from predatory mammals for millions of years, but about 1000 years ago, the most destructive predator of all found its way to the islands: the human. Some flightless birds, like the moa, have long since gone extinct. Kakapos are currently the subject of desperate conservation efforts.
While still not as widely recognized as the bizarre little kiwi bird, kakapo awareness was given a valuable boost in 1990, when Douglas Adams published his conservation travel book, Last Chance to See. The narrative follows Adams as he travels around the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine, attempting to find and raise awareness of the plight of highly endangered animals. Adams would later cite this as his favorite of all his works, and the kakapo as his favorite of the nine animals he and Carwardine were able to track down. The book even managed to gain enough popularity that in 2009, eight years after Adams’ death, Stephen Fry retraced his steps in a BBC TV series, again enlisting the help of Carwardine.
The knock-on effect of this was that Carwardine found himself being accosted on camera by the very parrot Douglas Adams had himself become so fond of twenty years earlier. That Carwardine was able to become so well acquainted with a kakapo (which was itself perhaps a bit too fond of him) is indicative both of strides in kakapo conservation since 1990 and the species’ prevailing inability to understand how reproduction works.
Kakapo conservation still has a long way to go, but considering what the kakapo has had to deal with for the past thousand years, it is a small miracle there are any around to conserve at all. Ever since the Maori arrived on the scene, bringing with them dogs and rats, the slow flightless birds of New Zealand have had the odds stacked against them. By the time Europeans got to the island in the 1800s, kakapos were already confined to densely forested mountainous regions. Others, like the Haast’s eagle and the moa, were long since extinct. Europeans released cats and stoats onto the island, raising the number of introduced predators still higher, and hunted more aggressively than the Maori before them. Kakapo numbers plummeted.
In the mid twentieth century, search and rescue missions scoured the New Zealand mainland looking for individuals to re-locate, but no females were found. Then, a small breeding population was located on tiny, stoat-free Stewart Island. The kakapos weren’t in danger of extinction yet, but their slow and ineffective mating rituals meant that the population continued to decline. When Adams went looking for the elusive parrot in 1989, it really did seem as though it would be the last chance to see these lovable trundling creatures. Then, Kakapo Recovery was founded. With new funding and redoubled efforts, the kakapo recovery program has managed to establish kakapo populations on three small islands (the mainland population is effectively extinct). The total number of kakapos is currently around 150 and growing. While the kakapos have been pushed out of their historic grounds, they have a chance at a new sort of survival, aided by the very species that nearly drove them to extinction in the first place.
So, if kakapos are the hobbits of the bird world, let’s speculate for a moment about how hobbits would fare if the humans of Middle Earth were to suddenly colonize the Shire. I would hazard a guess that they would not survive long. Their small size, insular ways, and close-knit community structure would break up entirely, and they would either have to get out or die out, unable to function in a world suddenly built for and by a larger, more destructive, and more aggressive people. On the other hand, if hobbits were to become more like humans, they themselves would no longer be well adapted to live in the Shire. Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the the biggest, the strongest, the bravest. Rather, it means that those who are best fit to their particular surroundings are the ones who thrive. The long, slow life of a kakapo was perfectly well adapted to the environment in which it evolved. Now, humans have brought about changes so drastic and so sudden that kakapos have had no time to adapt and nowhere to run. This same story is playing out on islands around the world, affecting hundreds of species whose homes have been suddenly and drastically altered beyond recognition.
That humans have, in New Zealand, constructed an artificial fantasy world on a deforested landscape formerly populated by fantastical birds is a bitter irony. Instead of harkening back to an idyllic but non-existent past, we could embrace the wonderfully diverse strategies of surviving, thriving, and coexisting displayed all around us. Humans are a remarkably adaptable species. Perhaps it is time to begin adapting ourselves to new environments instead of forcing our environment to adapt, or die, around us. Otherwise we could end up a very lonely species indeed.