As a writer I find just about anything grist to the inspiration mill. One thing that’s intrigued me for years has been our fascination with mysterious animals that take Size 82 in shoes and turn up in shadowy videos by lone hunters in remote locations.
To me such obsessions reveal more about the human condition than they do about any scientific reality. Fact is that these ‘crypto-zoological’ creatures are never around when scientists turn up, they leave no signs that can be decisively attributed to them, and never seem to exist in numbers able to make up a breeding population. To me the answer lies within ourselves; they lurk on the edges of our imaginations. We want to believe such animals exist.
Needless to say, New Zealand has its own twists. Here are my top three local cryptids.
1. Dinornis (Moa)
Moa were huge flightless ratites that once existed in most parts of New Zealand.
They were hunted to destruction soon after Polynesians got to New Zealand in the late thirteenth century – the final collision between Pliestocene megafauna and humanity. British settlers in the nineteenth century found their bones, and couldn’t get enough stories about them, hoping some moa might have survived somewhere. Reconstructions in London represented them as Emu-like, with immensely long vertical necks. Today we know they looked more like kiwi or cassowary, with a hooked neck and horizontal poise.
The notion of moa survival has persisted, although the chance of a breeding population of these enormous birds surviving undetected is pretty much nil. New Zealand’s back-country swarms with people. Back in 1974, we found the takahe on a population of about two dozen, and that’s a parrot. So if moa were about, we’d know.
I once had the fortune to examine the naturally mummified remains of moa, held in the Otago Museum – hundreds of years old, very rare, and fascinating. Curiously, given the way they were driven to extinction, the word ‘moa’ means ‘chicken’.
2. Fairy folk
A few years ago Penguin published a compilation of my science-fiction history stories in which I extrapolated from legends of ‘fairy folk’ to suppose that H. erectus had reached New Zealand and survived. Stories of ‘fairy folk’ – pakepakeha – circulate in New Zealand, and for a while there was even talk of a ‘bigfoot’ living on the Coromandel peninsula. Personally I thought the only unwashed hairy hominids there were living in the hippy communes, but that’s another story.
The scientific reality is that no primate ever existed here, still less any hominids. New Zealand had a unique biota as a consequence of its isolation, including the weta – an insect that occupies the biological niche of a rat (and is about as large). It was the last large land mass on the planet to be reached by humans, and we know now that this happened around 1280. Possibly on the Wairau Bar.
3. New Zealand Panthers
Since 1992 stories have persisted of a ‘black panther’ roaming the South Island. The problem is that New Zealand is an island nation 1800 km from the nearest land mass – any exotic animal has to be brought in deliberately, they’re licensed under the Biosecurity Act 1993, and we know exactly how many there are.
That’s not to deny there’s something down south; ‘panthers’ have been encountered and photographed many times. But actually there’s no mystery. To me they look like slightly large domestic cats. Department of Conservation staff identify them as feral cats, and when one was caught earlier this year it turned out to be a feral cat.
You’d think that, logically, the explanation is that they’re feral cats. But nooooo…. The pro-panther crowd insist there’s something else. Well, maybe the ‘panthers’ swam here from Africa, along with elephants, zebras and rhinos. Or not. What’s really funny is that there is no specific species of ‘panther’ – it’s the name given to black-toned jaguars or leopards.
Do you have secret animals – ‘cryptids’ – living in your area? What are those stories? Do they inspire you to write stories? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
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