“Ever since people came to New Zealand, we have had a special connection to the kiwi,” founder and project leader Paul Ward told AFP.
“They are central to Maori myth. Our sports teams, our rugby league teams, our defence force and, even when we go overseas, we are known as kiwis.
“They are tough, resilient, adaptable, all values we think of as New Zealanders, but most of us have never seen a kiwi before.”
Ward estimates wild kiwi last roamed the Wellington area more than a century ago.
The bid to save them required a sustained conservation effort.
The project had to first deal with the kiwi’s natural enemies prowling through the undergrowth.
Local dog owners were invited to sessions to teach their pets to steer clear of kiwi while out for walks.
The project also had to declare war on stoats.
An adult kiwi can fight off a stoat using its powerful legs and sharp claws but a chick has no chance, Ward explained.
The project laid a huge network of 4,500 traps over an area equivalent to nearly 43,000 football pitches on the hills surrounding Wellington. The traps have claimed 1,000 stoats so far.
After “blitzing stoats”, as Ward puts it, the predator population was low enough for the project to release the first batch of kiwi last November.
The birds were carefully transported nearly 500km from a captive breeding programme to a Wellington school, where they were welcomed by a traditional Maori ceremony.
Ward said a hush came over the 400-strong crowd as they caught their first glimpse of a kiwi when the first bird was released.