Eat Deer, Save Birds: a conservation tale

I sent off a postcard the other day.  The picture, I felt, was the quintessential image of the New Zealand countryside.  The glossy photo showed rolling green fields bordered in flax and populated by hundreds of puffy white sheep. I couldn’t find the postcard I wanted to send, the one that would have been just as fitting but heaps more comical.  The postcard I wanted would have looked much the same, but instead of the cute sheep it would have shown hundreds of thorny red deer.  It would have shown a never-ending field of fenced in deer because this too is the face of much of the southern planes.

Now, where I come from you don’t find deer on the farm with the sheep and the cows so I got to wondering.  How did these foreign animals arrived on this remote island and who decided to fence them in on a pasture? As it turned out, the story behind these wild animals’ home on the range was a true kiwi tale that marked the beginning of a rigorous conservation effort in the nation’s largest reserve, Fiordland National Park.

The red deer arrived with the early-European settlers who sought to fill the forests of their new homeland with a huntable population of easily adaptable mammals.  In came the deer, instantly taking to their lush new surroundings along the waters of Lake Mapourika and flourishing at outstanding rates, severely disrupting the local ecosystem.   In response, the government (in the early days of conservation) sent in a squad of hunters to lower the ever-expanding population.  When the hunters were ill equipped to do the trick, they called in the helicopters and declared an all out war with aerial weaponry.

Meanwhile, the local Southland population developed a liking for the taste of their enemy and got an idea.  Instead of killing the deer, they would capture them to raise on their farms.  Thus, the hunter became the captor, diving into the bush with hands outstretched and hopes of wrestling down a doe for a handsome sum.  It was a dangerous albeit lucrative change of occupation.

Henceforth, the farm-raised venison industry grew steadily and once the deer problem was tackled (pun intended), Kiwi environmentalists swooped in and set out to rid Fiordland National Park of its other invasive mammals.  Unfortunately, the stoats, rats, and possums were less delicious.  Traps were set in strategic inlaying islands with the goal of creating predator free havens for a handful of New Zealand’s quirky, defenseless, native birds.

New Zealand was a country void of mammals (bats excluded) before human intervention.  Once a kingdom governed by large flightless birds, early hunters and European introduced foreign mammals have decimated some of the world’s strangest creatures.  Fortunately, the tides have changed and there is a strong effort under foot to remove all invasive species from the land.  Conservationists hope to bring back the populations of the hapless indigenous birds who stand no chance in a land populated by mammals.  The vast majority of these endangered birds can only be found in Fiordland National Park in the remote southwest corner of this remote country.

I went to the Wildlife Center in Te Anau to catch a glimpse of one of only two Takahe kept in captivity.  Presumed to have flown over from Australia, several generations in enemy-free New Zealand left these birds with wings that grew smaller and smaller and bodies growing larger and larger until they became the fat, flightless Takahe we see today.  However, their homeland is no longer predator-free.  With an estimated population of around 200, the Takahe hovers on the brink of extinction.

The fact that there are 200 of these birds at all is a tribute to their conservation.  In the 19th century only four were seen alive and by 1930, the species was presumed extinct.  The Takahe was “rediscovered” in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948 by Dr Geoffrey Orbell who became mesmerized by the bird’s pelt at the Otago Museum and spent much of his life in Takahe’s pursuit.

Fiordland National Park is also home to the approximately 60 remaining Kakapo, all of which live on predator-free islands in the park.  The pea-green Kakapo holds many distinctive titles.  He is the world’s rarest parrot, the only flightless parrot, the only nocturnal parrot, and at around 3.5kg (8 lbs) he’s also the fattest.

At the fringe of the park and throughout the North and South islands lives the common Pukeko. Takahe’s sleeker cousin, the Pukeko is a national treasure.  A more recent arrival in New Zealand than it’s flightless cousin, the royal blue Pukeko can fly if he must, though his flight is a touch dowdy.  If the Kiwi is the country’s beloved king of birds, then the Pukeko is surely the queen – and if their court had a jester, the cheeky alpine Kea parrot (SEE ICE ICE BABY) could certainly entertain for hours.  These three birds can be found in plush toys, on key chains, on your shirt, on a mug, as a lawn ornament and starring in kids films and books.  They are the awkward rock stars of New Zealand wildlife.  Yet, at the end of the day, it’s the Kiwi that is the endearing symbol of not only the conservation movement, but the country as a whole.

There are five species of Kiwi throughout New Zealand, all of which are endangered, and one of the largest concentrations (Southern Tokoeka) live in the Fiordlands.  I’ve often wondered why the Kiwi was put on its pedestal.  Who put the plight of this bird above all the rest?  Surely it can’t be for its looks.  There are plenty of brighter, flashier birds with equal credentials to fill the Kiwi’s role.  How did Kiwis come to represent a nation – to name its people and market their favorite fruit?

The Kiwi as an emblem first appears in the late 1800’s on regimental badges and gained international recognition in the early 1900’s with Kiwi Shoe Polish, a popular item with Yanks and Brits during WWI.  The more I researched, the more I began to understand why the Kiwi is so treasured.  Having roamed these islands for the past 60 million years, they are the ancient New Zealanders.   Although partially blind and slightly clumsy, they are sharp, alert birds that can outrun the cleverest humans.  Furthermore, they are virtuous and, once bonded, live their entire lives as monogamous couples.

Kiwis (the people) are noted for their quite individualism, ingenuity, resourcefulness and quirky manner.  Lacking the nationalistic symbols of more established countries, New Zealanders are nevertheless extremely patriotic.   They draw their pride from the unique beauty of their country and it’s creatures.  Therefore, it is only logical that these smart, quirky, resourceful birds whose 60 million years on this land nearly came to an end at the hands of Kiwis (the people), would represent the hopes and ideals of a relatively new nation searching for an identity.

With the deer on the farm, and the stoats, possums, and rats in their traps, the hope is that the critically endangered Kiwi, Takahe, and Kekapo will once again bumble through their peaceful home.  In a remarkably short period of time, they have gone from freebirds to jailbirds.  We can look back in shame at the naivety of this nations early settler, but that would get us nowhere.  Now, we have only to look forward and hope that these isolated, predator-free islands can maintain and foster New Zealand’s original inhabitants.

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