Eggs on the edge
Saving the world’s weirdest parrot and a newt the size of a man
When an ‘EDGE species’ enters the world, does it stand a chance? Nisha Owen from On the Edge tells TOPIA how storytelling with a twist can support endangered species in going from the edge of extinction to the edge of glory
Chirpy music introduces the Kākāpō Run game, before a flightless green parrot waddles at speed down a track. As you slam into predators, jump over obstacles and collect feathers, you learn all about this incredible species. Particularly if you’re really terrible at games and bottom out so much that you’re blasted with factoids every time you lose a life. Did you know the kākāpō used to be one of the most common birds in New Zealand, they use their beaks to help them climb trees, and that their name is the Māori word for ‘night parrot’?
This mobile game, Kākāpō Run, comes from On the Edge, and it’s just one way that the charitable foundation-meets-marketing agency for nature is spreading the word about Planet Earth’s weirdest and most wonderful endangered species. The storytellers and scientists are working to reconnect people with nature by making grants to conservation and storytelling projects all over the world, advocating for change with policy makers, and at the same time reconnecting the public (particularly younger audiences) with the natural world, showing that all is not lost.
The species that this organisation has its mind on is EDGE species – Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered – which also includes the purple frog, Indian pangolin and other living legends of our biodiverse world. When On the Edge is finished, these creatures will be as well known as the panda or tiger. Perhaps IKEA will be stocking kākāpō cuddly toys before we know it.
“As well as talking about these species, we also want to make sure that we’re really supporting them on the ground,” Nisha explains. “The way that I support is helping find interesting phenomena in the natural world or interesting species that we want to profile and providing that research, which enables the creative minds to think about the best way to tell that story.”
On the Edge finds projects that are doing interesting work supporting EDGE species, and makes grants, as well as supporting them, be it increasing understanding of angelsharks off the coast of Wales through Project SIARC (Sharks Inspiring Action and Research with Communities), which engages with fishers and local people to improve understanding of angelsharks; conserving the biodiversity hotspot that is the Western Ghats through the Nature Conservation Foundation; or protecting aye-aye habitat in Madagascar through GERP (The Study and Research of Primates Group), whose scientists work with local communities.
If you’ve never heard of an aye-aye, they’re the world’s largest nocturnal lemurs, and the only primate to use echolocation to find food. They use their jaws, which are powerful enough to bite through concrete, to crack open branches and dig out grubs using a long skeletal finger.
Hi, I’m endangered!
The kākāpō don’t just get their moment of fame in a game setting. Tegan the kākāpō is the star of the animated series, Hi, I’m Endangered. In a three minute video, this spirited and stylish bird explains exactly what happened to put her species on the edge, all between telling eye-roll inducing jokes and waiting for a berry blast-off smoothie.
In other animated shorts, which would be at home on any Gen-Z Youtube channel, Lexi the aye-aye attempts TikTok dances and Eric the pangolin explores the science of making friends. Woven among the catchy content, are facts about these EDGE species. These little-known animals are brought to the world’s attention through animated characters.
Everything the organisation creates is grounded in good, rigorous science. The species, the threats they face, their ecology, and what they eat, are used throughout the production of a series. The animated animals are scientifically correct, and they’re given a suitable personality, to create a non-human influencer.
In On the Edge’s satirical short film series Animals in Therapy, endangered creatures talk about the problems they face, using real wildlife footage: “Why am I anxious? Why is it so hard to find a date? How are you dealing with the housing crisis?!”
You get to eavesdrop on their hopes, fears and anxieties – and discover how similar our worlds really are.
EDGE species have even worked their way into stand-up comedy. Comedian Simon Watt took his On the Edge-supported show, The Ugly Animal Preservation Society, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in a bid to highlight the animals in need of attention. It explored how comedy and conservation can team up. “Blob fish needs YOU!” the poster reads.
“Comedy is really dealing with some much more substantive issues now. It’s not just entertainment,” Nisha comments.
The weird and the wonderful
“EDGE species have very few or no close relatives, which means that they are unique in the way that they look, they live and behave, and if we lose them, there’s literally nothing on the planet that is at all similar,” Nisha says. “Because they don’t have very many close relatives, we can think of them as entire branches of the tree of life.”
This, Nisha explains, means they could have greater importance than a species with close relatives. Lose one EDGE species, and you lose a whole branch of the tree of life.
“They represent millions of years of evolutionary history, which is currently at risk,” she says. “If you were to add up the numbers of years of evolutionary history that’s at risk across all terrestrial vertebrate EDGE species, we actually stand to lose more than 50 billion years of evolutionary history.”
Some of these creatures might have incredible benefits for the planet, which we won’t know about until we lose them.
“We know that a million species are at risk of extinction. Without a massive injection of resources, we simply can’t save everything. So this is where we have to think about – what is it that’s important to us now and also into the future?”
Directing resources to protecting EDGE species is a little more manageable.
Alongside CEO Jonathan Baillie (the former chief scientist of National Geographic), Nisha explains how her role entails tapping into the weird and wonderful things they’ve come across in their careers.
“It’s thinking about, what are these aspects that are not as well known, that haven’t necessarily been covered in a nature documentary,” she says.
EDGE species, Nisha explains, have lots of interesting traits. “A good example is the Chinese giant salamander, which is a newt that grows as big as a man. It grows up to 1.8 metres.”
There’s also the numbat, the only marsupial which doesn’t have a pouch. Nisha explains that they eat up to 20,000 termites a day and have been lost from 99% of their original range.
And back to the kākāpō, one of the world’s heaviest parrots. On the Edge finances the Māori Trust, which works with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand to undertake activities that protect these birds, which can live for up to 60 years, and sometimes even 90.
“The males come together in a group to show off to females and the females pick the male that they like the most to mate with,” Nisha says. “And the males make these booming noises to attract females that can be heard from several kilometres.”
Once one of the most common birds in New Zealand, invasive species like stoats and rats have wiped them off the mainland. There are only 252 kākāpō alive today, found on three predator-proofed islands and subject to intense conservation work.
These parrots only breed once every few years, when there’s mass fruiting of a particular species of tree. The females lay a clutch of between one and four eggs, with every chick susceptible to disease, and eggs often get broken. The support that On the Edge offers means that more incubators have been purchased. Real eggs are switched with fakes, until hatching time.
“They were able to return the eggs to the nest just before hatching, which actually massively increased the ability of the mother kākāpō to care for her chicks,” Nisha says, explaining how successful the project has been.
On the Edge also funded GPS tagging for adults and chicks. In the future, they’d like to support genetic sequencing, so scientists can ensure females aren’t all breeding with the same alpha males.
A big fuss is often made in New Zealand over the successes of the kākāpō breeding programme around Valentine’s Day. Locals had a competition in 2019 to find the most romantic saxophone music to get the birds in the breeding mood.
Kākāpō might get a lot of glory, but there are other egg-laying EDGE species too. The platypus (a semi-aquatic animal which looks part duck, part beaver) and long-beaked echidna (a spiny creature with a long snout) are both egg-laying mammals in need of attention. Nisha is full of unforgettable echidna facts – the males have four-headed penises and the babies are called puggles.
On the Edge is now thinking about their next mobile game – what species should they cover, what are the issues, and what could people do to help? In the meantime, for those who’ve completed Kākāpō Run, there’s Save the Purple Frog.
“The purple frog spends its entire life underground. So we know very little about it. And it only emerges one day in the year to breed, so it mates and lays its eggs,” Nisha explains. Even though she did her PhD and fieldwork in the Western Ghats where they’re found, Nisha has never seen a purple frog.
After focus groups, On the Edge found that people who played Kākāpō Run were more willing to think about changing their behaviour towards protecting wildlife, for example by putting bells on cats. And that’s part of the purpose of these games – changing behaviours.
These weird and wonderful, sometimes ugly creatures are in desperate need of our attention. On the Edge is not only helping conservation organisations keep them alive, but it’s shining a spotlight on these beings – whether they come with scales, feathers or alarming reproductive organs. From the newt the size of a man to the underground frog – let’s hear it for species on the edge.
5 Creators on the Edge to follow
On The Edge also supports other storytellers through ‘Creators on the Edge’, a place where social media influencers create content about their relationships with nature.
Veronica Moore – plant therapy advocate
Gardening is integral to Veronica’s story of how she overcame grief. After losing her sister, it was reconnecting to the earth that brought healing and – over time – joy. Now she shares her love of all things green with her online community.
Nick Pumphrey – wild photographer
Often found snapping thunderously beautiful Cornish seascapes, Nick’s connection to the sea is almost mystical. His project involved wild swimming at sunrise with different companions and recording their deeply personal and – sometimes – existential reflections.
Kate – compost queen
Meet a compost coach from Sydney, Australia, who helps you to see nature differently. For Kate, the cycle of decay and renewal is magical: worms use leftovers to make ‘black gold’; allowing us to nourish ourselves physically and spiritually.
James Weiss – pond scum scientist
When he stumbled across his passion for the microcosmos – and found himself in the process – James was blown away. Since then, his otherworldly YouTube videos, documentaries, films and best-selling book about a world none of us can see without a microscope, have reached millions.
Boreal Faun – tracepunk
Following tracks of wild animals is So’s way of connecting with nature and the creatures that call it home. This intimate ‘courtship’ allows So – a Greek-American naturalist who’s transgender – to explore questions of identity and find sustenance.
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
On the Edge is not only championing the critically endangered, it’s fighting for the little guy. It’s creating real change on the ground and inspiring people to engage with parts of the natural world that they didn’t even know existed. Through their work, we can see that hope is not lost. Follow @ontheedge_org
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.