Deer hunter blunder kills rare takahe

New Zealand deer hunters culling pukeko on an island sanctuary have killed rare flightless birds in another case of mistaken identity


The pūkeko is probably one of the most recognised native birds in New Zealand,” says the Department of Conservation website.

It seems not when deerstalkers are killing critically endangered takahe instead of common pukeko in a case of mistaken identity.

Experienced members of New Zealand’s Deerstalker Association were called in to stem the rising population of pukeko on Motutapu Island, a predator free wildlife sanctuary off the east coast of North Island, near Auckland.

DOC staff found four takahe with shotgun wounds and the cull has been put on hold while the deaths are investigated.

At a quick glance from the untrained eye, these two distantly related birds can be difficult to tell apart. However, those who have been assigned the responsibility of culling to protect an endangered species should be diligent, especially as the crucial difference between these birds is that the takahe is flightless.

“The hunters had been carefully briefed on how to differentiate between the flightless takahe and pukeko, including instructions to only shoot birds on the wing,” Andrew Baucke, DoC Northern Conservation Services Director, told Radio New Zealand.

The guidelines were introduced after a takahe was mistakenly shot during a pukeko cull in 2008 on Mana Island, off the Wellington coast.

The native pukeko is a prolific native moorhen that threatens takahe survival by disturbing nests and eggs. The pukeko is the size of a small chicken, with blue and black colouring on its back, and red beak and legs.


New Zealand pukeko

Indigenous to New Zealand, the takahe is a larger bird of blue and green colouring, with thicker red beak and legs.


New Zealand takahe

The takahe was thought to have become extinct until the only surviving wild population was discovered in 1948 in South Island’s Fiordland National Park.

Around 70-80 birds remain in this remote inhospitable landscape which is at least free from human introduced predators such as cats, dogs, and ferrets. Stoats are the main threat to takahe eggs and chicks, and deer compete for grasses.

The Department of Conservation recovery program is working to increase the number of breeding pairs from 65 to 125 by 2020 and, in partnership with DIY corporation Mitre-10, has established small populations on predator-free islands Maud, Mana, Kapiti, Tiritiri Matangi, Rotoroa and Motutapu.

Of the total population of around 300 takahe, 21 lived on Motutapu Island before the shooting.

President of the Deerstalker Association, Bill O’Leary was appalled and upset by the incident and has apologised on behalf of the association. He accepts a DOC investigation will determine that member(s) of the association were responsible for the bird deaths, according to the New Zealand Herald.

South Island Maori iwi Ngai Tahu are angry about the takahe deaths. They consented to the rare birds being taken to island sanctuaries from their South Island habitat to help species survival.

Christine Fletcher, one of the founders of the Motutapu Restoration Trust, told Radio New Zealand there needs to be accountability for this repugnant act.

“It’s devastating for those of us who’ve worked for 21 years to bring this about and that we can have lost four of these precious, precious taonga in one day.”

The Deerstalkers Association are co-operating with enquiries. Deerstalkers were involved in pukeko culls in 2012 and 2013, but it looks unlikely that DOC will use deerstalkers for future culls.

David Miller, a former Mountain Safety Council instructor told Radio New Zealand that deerstalkers should not be recruited to cull pukeko. With 50 years’ experience as a deerstalker, he said they are not familiar with shotguns and are used to shooting slow moving or stationary targets.

It’s not just takahe that have been wrongly identified by New Zealand deerstalkers. Campers, or other hunters have been killed or injured by mistake when the target has not been correctly identified before shooting.

It’s a wonder that deerstalkers were trusted with such responsibility. The takahe are GPS tagged – that’s how the dead birds were located; they weren’t reported by the hunters. It’s a wonder that the 21 takahe were not captured and made safe before the hunters were let loose, or identified by a fluorescent band. Then their identity would have been obvious, even to someone with a gun in their hand.

Conservationists dedicate their lives to species protection and all it takes is a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to jeopardise their work, not to mention taxpayer and private donation money that is wasted.

The Motutapu Trust says the takahe population should recover, but what this killing shows yet again is that animals are cheap in the eyes of some hunters, and birds are cheaper still.

Image credit:
Pukeko by David Brighten
Takahe by Russell Street on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0 )