Posted by: thezedword | February 15, 2009

Te Waka a Maui

I’d like to start by affirming one rumor about New Zealand and endorsing a second.

1. There are sheep here.

Some friendly sheep we found in Nelson

Some friendly sheep we found in Nelson

Heaps sheep. Sheeps as. (For those just joining us, those are Kiwi phrases for “a lot”.) Fifteen minutes outside of Picton, the port through which we entered the South Island, and I had already seen more along the road than I’ve seen in my entire life. This is not hyperbole. I hail from Florida and the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a sheep there was an un-groomed poodle.

Before New Zealand was populated by peoples from the Pacific and Europe, bats, dolphins, whales and seals were the country’s only mammals. Birds ruled the land and, with no natural predators (except those birds that preyed upon other birds), evolution took a few creative liberties with them. Now a days, the strangest birds you’ll see are the nocturnal, flightless, ground-dwelling kiwi; the long-legged, blue-feathered, red-beaked, swamp-dwelling pukeko; or the curious, chicken-like weka, but these guys have nothing on the moa. Similar to an ostrich, the largest Moa stood 12-feet tall, had no wings whatsoever (not even little nubbins like the kiwi), and were the top of the vegetarian food chain in avifauna New Zealand.

These moas weighed over 500 lbs and somehow another bird, the Haast Eagle, preyed on them, swooping down, picking them up, and taking them to their death cave. At least that’s what the drivers on the Kiwi Experience bus told us, however, what’s more likely seems to be what Wikipedia says (yes, I know, not the most reliable source either):

Haast’s Eagle preyed on large, flightless bird species, including the moa which was up to 15 times its weight. It attacked at speeds up to 80 km/h (50 mph), often seizing its prey’s pelvis with the talons of one foot and killing with a blow to the head or neck with the other. Its size and weight indicate a bodily striking force equivalent to a cinder block landing on the target from a height of 25 m. The eagle had power in its talons easily sufficient to snap a human’s neck, or puncture the skull. Its large beak was used to rip into the internal organs and death was induced by blood loss. In the absence of other large predators or scavengers, a Haast’s Eagle could have easily monopolized a single large kill over a number of days.

The Haast Eagle going for two.

The Haast Eagle going for two.

These two beasts are dead now. Maoris, taking advantage of the slow, dumb moa as a food source, hunted it into extinction some half a millennia ago. And since the moa was gone, so too went the Haast Eagle. It’s likely the Maori hunted the Haast Eagle, seeing as how they might be a bit threatened by a pterodactyl that just descended from the sky and took out a bird twice the size of them, no matter how many tattoos the Maori had on their face. More than anything though starvation did the Haast Eagle in. And other birds have come close to following. With the Maoris and Europeans came rabbits, possums, rats, stoats, sheep, deer, birds from other countries and other untold parasites. They feasted on the eggs of the native birds, stole their nests, obliterated the vegetation and nearly annihilated New Zealand’s true native population.

Which, in a round about way, explains why there are so many sheep. Deer too. No coyotes, wolves, panthers, or whatever else might eat sheep (or mistakenly eat poodles) around to feast upon them so they escape natural selection (except, of course, when delivered by farmers) and have taken over the country side. Until seals suddenly become violent land-dwelling carnivores things will probably remain like this for eons to come. (Extremely unlikely; there are seals a plenty as well here and they seem entirely content with their water-bound, smelly, carefree life reminiscent of wake-and-bake surfers.) As far as I could tell, though, there are no wild sheep left (or deer for that matter). They’re mostly farmed for their meat and wool and, their lives, for better or worse, are heavily dependent on humans. If the demand for lamb meat and wool ever disappeared, so too might the sheep population. This is not a theory that I pulled out of left field. As I’ll talk more about later on, when the deer population in New Zealand burgeoned in the 1900s, the government hired hunters to kill the deer in order to protect the native flora. The bushmen were very good at their job; they didn’t stop at Bambi’s mother, they went right on after Bambi too. That is, until they realized how much money deer meat could be sold for overseas, when they changed their hunting program into a catch-and-release-in-a-farm-and-kill-later program. The fate of these animals rests in capitalism.

I offer this brief, probably a bit inaccurate, tale of New Zealand natural history to emphasize this point: it is a land constantly in flux, and I’m not just talking about the animal life. Earthquakes rattle the land, though are rarely felt (knock on wood). A few active volcanoes dot the North Island. The glaciers somehow advance and shrink at the same time. The mountains grow and recede at almost identical rates. New Zealand is ever-changing, but never growing. The South Island Stacy and I saw for two weeks is not the New Zealand that will be here in two years and that makes the country more mysterious, unique and breathtaking than any I’ve ever been in before.

2. Kiwis are terrible at karaoke.

More on that in the next post.

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Responses

  1. Hi, I don’t know you . . . but I like your blog! I’m another Floridian who lived over in NZed, and every now and then I read your posts when Justin Facebooks them. This makes me nostalgic and also explains some stuff I managed not to learn over there. I’ll have to start reading more often. Any plans for an RSS?

  2. It was nice to see your blog.Just Keep Writing!


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