In the Corner of the World – It ain’t easy being a kiwi

Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.

What is it about a place that truly makes it unique? Is it one of a kind outdoor spaces? Quirky cities? Perhaps friendly locals that make you feel welcome? In New Zealand, all of these one-of-kind traits are evident. But one particularly defining feature is the country’s truly bizarre wildlife. Thanks to its geographic isolation, over a thousand miles from the nearest large landmass, mother nature has allowed some truly strange and one-of-a-kind animals to flourish, particularly flightless birds like the kiwi.

Given the bird can be found only in New Zealand, the country has long claimed it as a point of national identity. The country first began adopting the bird as its official symbol in the late 19th Century, when it appeared on products like Kiwi Shoe Polish as well as on military uniforms. Signs dot the highways all across New Zealand, warning you to look out for the creatures and gift shops are filled with eyeroll-inducing mounds of kiwi souvenirs.

With all the attention showered on this weird little bird, you’d think they would be all over the place, right? Wrong. Thanks to the threat of predators like dogs and weasels that were introduced to New Zealand and feed on the birds and their eggs, kiwis are now considered an endangered species. In fact, in an intensive effort is currently underway to locate and raise kiwi eggs in labs so they have a better chance of survival.

But, I have a confession. After touring a facility where they raise the young kiwis, I was struck by the futility of the whole process. Why try and protect a flightless bird that can’t fend for itself in the wild? And what does the plight of the kiwi say about New Zealand’s prospects to remain a wild, unspoiled place? Click below to find out…
Saving a kiwi isn’t as easy as declaring them protected. It involves arduous, painstaking work. Once field staff has located kiwi eggs in the wild, they are brought to a facility for protection. The eggs are then weighed, measured and inspected, before being placed in incubators where they must be closely monitored by the staff for around 60-90 days. After which time the birds hatch, the young chicks are kept in protective pens until they are deemed strong enough to be returned to the wild.

The entire operation has a great purpose – I can certainly understand the need to protect a creature that has come to represent a totally unique place in New Zealand’s culture. But let’s be honest here – evolution does not want this animal alive. A variety of factors, including the introduction of invasive species to the New Zealand ecosystem, the encroachment of man on the creature’s traditional habitats and sloppy parental instincts (kiwis are known to desert their eggs) have all conspired to reduce their numbers to the point of near extinction.

Yet there is something so hopelessly noble in the urge to protect the kiwi. This animal is no longer just a cute fluffy thing with a beak. Instead it’s come to represent New Zealand’s attempts to come to grips with the country’s national identity. An urge to recognize the unique things that make their country special but realizing they are partly responsible for their continued decline. It was a relationship doomed from the start – the moment settlers began to colonize New Zealand, they began to inextricably change the landscape and the native Maori people, introducing plants and animals previously unknown to the island’s native wildlife and precipitating their current demise. It’s a process that cannot be stopped – only slowed down.

Yet this totally one-of-a-kind animal persists to survive, nudged along by its hopeful guardians. It’s the most delicate of balancing acts – can the New Zealand of now co-exist with the wild New Zealand that once was? Let’s hope, for the kiwi’s sake, the answer is yes.