New Zealand’s first people, the Maori, arrived about 1000 years ago. These early immigrants were the first to hunt the kiwi, using Polynesian dogs/kuri and traps.
However, because kiwi hold a special place in Maori tradition, they were hunted sparingly and with great ceremony.
Life for kiwi got much worse when Europeans arrived.
The bird first came to European attention in 1811 when a skin ended up in the hands of British Museum zoologist, George Shaw. He gave kiwi its scientific name, Apteryx australis – which means ‘southern bird with no wings’. In 1813, Shaw also published a description, with an artist’s impression of what a live kiwi might look like. It was skinny and upright, not unlike a penguin, and caused a sensation.
Some thought the bird a hoax, a crazy skin stitched-together from a number of different creatures – just as they had believed the Australian platypus was a joke.
As more reports and skins came in the kiwi’s existence was confirmed, and, in 1851, a live female kiwi arrived at London Zoo. She lived alone for 15 years, laying eggs that could never be fertilised.
Tough as old boots
Meanwhile new human arrivals were flooding into New Zealand in search of gold, land and adventure. Many hunted for food, though not all found kiwi meat to their taste.
Legendary 19th century surveyor, explorer and naturalist, Charles Douglas, injured and alone, came upon a pair of kiwi in a burrow.
‘Being punished with hunger, I ate the pair of them. Under the circumstances, I would have eaten the last of the dodos … the best definition about roast or boiled kiwi I ever heard was a man remarking it tasted as he should imagine a piece of pork boiled in an old coffin would taste like.’
He did, however, think kiwi eggs made great fritters when fried in oil from the kakapo bird.
Unlike Maori, Europeans gave kiwi no special place in their culture. Overseas museums paid high prices for kiwi skins, and the 1870s fur trade was hungry for the soft grey pelts of the little spotted kiwi. Kiwi became fashion victims, slaughtered in their thousands for muffs and hat trimmings.
By the late 1800s, people began to realise the unique value of New Zealand’s native species. Nature reserves were set up and, finally, in 1896 the kiwi was declared a protected species.
Because birds could still be heard calling at night, and were protected by law, for a long time few people imagined they were in trouble.
The first worrying reports began in the 1980s as trampers and hunters began to notice silent nights. Kiwi calls were disappearing from places they had once been common, and their footprints, beak probes and burrows were now rare sightings.
In 1992 and 1993 a nationwide survey of kiwi carried out by the Department of Conservation was compared with a survey done 20 years earlier. The results confirmed the worst fears – kiwi were in serious trouble, their populations in steep decline.
Kiwi numbers have dropped from an estimated 23 million in 1900, to 5 million in the 1920s, to about 70,000 today.