Secret beasts of New Zealand. Only one of them with big feet.

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.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,
A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,
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

Coming up: More writing hints and tips, more fun stuff, humour and more. Watch this space.


12 thoughts on “Secret beasts of New Zealand. Only one of them with big feet.

  1. The Minnesota State bird is the mosquito. Roughly the size of a common crow, it is said that three of them can drain a small child of blood in less than a minute. No, really!

  2. My favourite New Zealand cryptid story is the otter or beaver like creature reportedly sighted by early settlers in the South Island. In the nineteenth century these sightings captured the attention of the likes of Mantell and Haast. While researching in the Turnbull Library I even once came across a letter from Charles Darwin enquiring about it. I expect that some sightings are likely explained as either seals or in the case of some of the Canterbury sightings the spotted quoll which was thought to have been briefly introduced there. Unfortunately there is no firm evidence that any unidentified creature ever existed, but considering the number of alleged sightings the mystery does intrigue me and I don’t think we can yet completely write off the possibility that there was something here, sometime, maybe.

    The other popular legend down here in the south is the possibility that a population of moose have clung on to existence in Fiordland. This differs from the more fanciful stories of hominids, panthers and moa as we of course know that there was indeed a small population introduced to the area a century ago. A distant relative of mine shot one in the 1950’s. The re-discovery of moose in Fiordland would offer little in scientific value, they are of course a species that thrives elsewhere in the world, but I suspect it is the allure of the mystery that attracts people. We live in an age where it can sometimes feel like everything on this planet has been discovered, there is nowhere left to explore and no new adventures to be had. I think that is part of the reason why part of us likes to think that there are still some mysteries out there waiting to be solved, and of course there are! But perhaps not in the shape of Yeti or mystery panthers.

    1. I have a vague recollection of a Japanese group who went into Fijordland intending to record what they imagined was the sound of a moa booming – which, I suspect, was likely the moose population at work! The settler fascination with the fauna and flora of this place was remarkable – as was their intent to transform it. Charles Hursthouse has to be the leader of that pack…he even wanted to bring in elephants, giraffes, big game, everything… Entirely so they could be hunted and shot, of course… (sigh)…

  3. Ours is the jackalope, a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope. They’re basically jackrabbits, which are in great abundance and can become quite large, with antelope antlers. Aside from tourists I’m not sure if there are many who believe they exist.

    1. It’s a cool name for a creature! Actually, I have a funny feeling I’ve seen a Pixar short involving a Jackalope. We don’t have anything to quite match it in New Zealand – though the Aussies, over the Tasman, have their ‘Drop Bears’.

  4. Sorry to say, my mythical creature is just that. My story is started, but has a ways to go.
    I found it fascinating that your Moa looked a lot like my Amira. She’s a lovely bird with aquamarine and yellow feathers, an exceptionally large upper beak, and she has super powers. One of the problems with her species is that after laying eggs, she forgets them from time to time which causes problems.
    Amira is not seen very often because she lives in that middle space between reality and fantasy. Maybe that’s what happened to the Moa. They moved to that invisible world just outside of reality.

    1. That’s where moa are now…they were real and now exist in that invisible world of our minds and imaginations – and in a very lively way, I might add! They got there, alas, not through their own volition but via a fairly extended banquet…As, indeed, did the giant New Zealand eagle (12 foot wingspan), and others.

  5. Thank you for that word “cryptid”–new to me. Thanks also for the memory lane effect, as we lived in NZ for a year many years ago. I used to yearn to bump into a Moa coming around the bend on some bush trail in the S. I., but had to make do with kiwis, which were pretty darn special in their own way.

    1. Kiwis are indeed very special birds. As indeed is New Zealand’s bush. Would be wonderful to find a moa in it. There are various species of insect being found and classified. But it’s not quite the same.

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