Travel Tips / Meet New Zealand’s wildlife
You probably heard about the 5 million people for 30 million sheep, haven’t you? Well, it is true, the vast wild lands dominate in New Zealand, a dream destination for Nature lovers. This incredible country is the only place on earth where fjords meet volcanoes, not far from beaches, overlooking glaciers and primary forests. Among this range of landscapes, you won’t see only sheep! From the origins of this biodiversity to the current challenges, discover New Zealand’s wildlife main species and our tips to encounter them during your travels.
Back to the origins
“Earth is a mother who never dies”. This Maori proverb shows us the greatness and admiration given to Nature by the natives since their origin. New Zealand (new land of the seas) is the occidental name given by the Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu, and anglicized by the explorer James Cook in the 17th century. Maori people, on the island since the 11th century, had two names for the north island; ‘’Te ika-a-Māui’’ (the Māui fish) and ‘’Aotearoa’’ (the long white cloud land) and another for the south island ‘’Te Wai Pounamu’’ (jade waters). Therefore, as many other aspects of their culture, Nature is essential, key to creation and change.
Since New Zealand separated from the supercontinent, it has become a rich land buzzing with life including specific plants and animals that have evolved, independently from the world. Frequent and abundant rains, along with a high sunlight, generated the development of a lush flora and diverse fauna, 80% endemic. Before the arrival of humans, vast primary forests were home to an incredible diversity of birds. With evolution, some’s wings had become useless as no predator would make them flee. Therefore, several New Zealand endemic birds cannot fly. Among them, the Kakapo parrot, the Takahe, The Kiwi and the largest bird in the world, now extinct, the Moa.
This land is one of the last discovered by Men. When the Maori, and later Europeans, conquered both islands, they hunted birds and brought predators like rats, cats and ermines. Paired with the loss of their habitat, it unfortunately led to extinction of several species like the Moa and the Huia. Luckily we can still encounter plenty of wild animals and some rare and endemic.
Here are portraits of some of our favorites, that you can discover too.
The Royal Albatros
We can admire it with binoculars, in a conservation centre specialised in this species, on the Otago peninsula, South Island. There, at Taiaroa Head, is the largest colony in the whole south hemisphere. To know more about what you will see and when, here is a handy document created by the centre.
Several threats make it a rare and endangered bird: fishing nets where they sometimes get stuck and birdies dying under a too hot temperature or eaten by predators such as cats or ermines. Moreover, the royal albatros lay only one egg every two years, and this only at the place of its own birth. This makes their thriving even more complicated. Flying globetrotter, it can reach four meters wide and travel 190 000 km per year.
Your visit and potential donation to the conservation centre allow it to continue protecting the species and encourage awareness. Thanks to the passionate volunteers of this centre, you will be able to learn everything about the royal albatros and photograph it (if you have a zoom lens), while supporting its conservation.
A parrot that can live in snowy mountains? Yes, not joking.
The New Zealand kea is the only alpine parrot and considered as one of the smartest birds in the world. Very sociable, many do not hesitate to come close to cars and men looking for food and entertainment. Although it can be dangerous for them. This is why they are protected and it is forbidden to feed them, so they can keep their wild instincts and the ability to find food by themselves.
You can see them on the South Island, especially near Millford Sounds. Be careful with your personal belongings though.
Endemic to the country, it has become New Zealand’s national symbol.
The kiwi is extremely rare and hard to spot in its natural habitat. Even protected, they are victims of the roads and of the new predators brought by Men, such as cats, dogs and ermines. Also their reproduction takes time. The female lays only one egg at a time, between once and three times during her life.
Without wings, small, discret with its dark feathers, it only goes outside at night to feed. For all of those reasons, your almost only chance to see them is in one of the conservation centres involved in the species breeding program. It is important to support these programs because they also educate people about this fascinating animal. Contact us to know where they are located.
This gannet is an excellent diver, feeding on fish and cephalopods. Native to the North Atlantic ocean, it is now the biggest European seabird and one of the largest colonies settled in New Zealand, at Cape Kidnappers on the North Island. We invite you to take a walk near the colony of 6500 individuals, observe them without disturbance and keep in mind that this huge group started nesting here in 1870. Amazing, isn’t it?
Several options are available to see them : cliff hiking, sea kayaking or taking a tour in a 4WD vehicle. There are certain things to know before heading there, for instance, it should be at low tide. We will advise you accordingly when you plan to go there.
Only non-flying parrot on Earth, it resembles the Kea but has more commun features with the kiwi. Unfortunately they have been almost totally wiped out by settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were often taken as pets or hunted by cats and ermines.
The species benefited from a conservation program since 1995 but it came too late. Because of the undernumbered individuals and therefore a weak genetic asset, the kakapo is not resistant enough to diseases and 40% of its eggs are unfertile. Nevertheless, researchers do not give up and the 49 remaining individuals’ DNA have been sampled in 2015. It is the first time an entire species has seen its genome sequenced. Two islands without predators are reserved for them to thrive: Anchor and Codfish near the South Island.
Visitors are not allowed on those islands, in order to preserve the kakapo peace and environment. The good news is that you can learn more about Sirocco, New Zealand’s superstar kakapo by clicking here and you can see it live in this hilarious video:
The Fur Seal
The New Zealand fur seal is easy to recognize with its pointed nose, long mustaches and visible ears. Previously hunted for its fur, it almost went extinct but fortunately this practice was prohibited from 1894.
On the North Island, you can see them at Cape Palliser, near Wellington, and at Castle Point on the Wairarapa coastline. On the South Island, we recommend you take a sea kayak tour around Tonga island in the stunning Abel Tasman National Park, where you have chances to meet seals, dolphins and penguins. We can also mention Cape Foulwind near Westport, and Kaikoura, where you enjoy a supervised swim with seals.
Don’t rely on their lazy attitude on the rocks, they take rest there to digest after hunting, regain energy or give birth. But you will be amazed by their grace and agility in their natural element. On the Catlins coastline and the Gillespies beach near Haast, you might be able to spot some New Zealand sea lions, sea elephants and leopard seals.
On land, they display a funny waddling look, but in the water, they can easily be compared to acrobats. There are three different species of penguins in New Zealand and they can be spotted from land or from a boat, keeping a good distance to not disturb their nesting. Thanks to conservation centres, they can be observed without disruption and you can learn all about them.
Firstly, the Korora, or Pygmy Penguin, is the smallest penguin in the world. If lucky, you might spot them forming a group, coming back from hunting in the evening, in the Marlborough Sounds, near the Akaroa harbour, in Oamaru and also on Stewart Island.
The second species is the rare Hoiho, or Antipode Penguin, easily recognised thanks to his yellow eyeliner stripe. It can be observed on the Otago peninsula, south from Dunedin and the Catlins region. There we can recommend a nice walk to see penguins, sea lions and fur seals in their natural habitat.
The third penguin is the Fiordland penguin, the rarest of all. It lives in the South end of the South island, in the wild and remote Fiordland and Stewart Island.
The Sperm Whale
Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island, is the place in the world to observe the Sperm Whale, the biggest marine mammal on earth (around 15 meters long) and the biggest toothed whale.
There, the resident population of whales, along with several species of dolphins, can be observed all year round during the day. We can also spot Orcas between December and March and Humpback Whales in June and July.
The Sperm Whale dives in the ocean depths to feed, and the Kaikoura marine geography is unusual and ideal. The continental plateau falls into very deep underwater canyons. In addition, the northern warm stream meets the colder one coming from south. As a result, the nutrients coming from the depths come upwards to the surface. This phenomenon contributes to feeding all forms of marine life, from plankton to krill and from dolphins to whales.
Also called white forehead dolphin, it is the smallest dolphin of all. Unfortunately, it has become very rare and we can only find it in Akaroa on the South Island, where even the locals don’t see it often. Many die in high sea fish nets or because of plastic ingestion. Hence the need to eliminate as much plastic as possible from your consumption, and always throw them in the dedicated trash bins. They are also threatened by underwater explosions set for mining extraction, which make them flee and disturbe their reproduction.
You will more likely be able to spot the Dusky Dolphin on a Kaikoura boat excursion, on the South Island East Coast. You could also jump into the chilly water to have a swim with those curious yet wild fellows. Swimming with dolphins in New Zealand, wasn’t it on your bucket list?
Of course, we can’t list them all here, otherwise the article would become a book. You understood it, many New Zealand’s native animals are rare but fortunately not all. According to your itinerary, the time you have and the way you travel, you might also encounter many birds, deers… For more chances, wake up early in the morning and go for a walk in one of countless hiking trails. If you wish to benefit from organised tours like wilderness excursions, whale watching cruise or swim with dolphin activity… contact us, we are here to assist you.
Species conservation, a national challenge
The New Zealand nation has learnt from its past and understood that the conservation of its natural assets is essential to its future. According to a ministry report “Environment Aotearoa”, 75 animal and plant species have gone extinct since the island conquest by Men. Moreover, 90% of the seabirds and 84% of the reptiles are endangered. Therefore, entire ecosystems are under threat.
Besides this statement, tourism is a national cause as it represents 5,6% of the PIB (2019) and 10% of the employment market. The beauty and biodiversity of its landscapes are undeniably an asset, in terms of identity and economy.
For those reasons, the government has undertaken measures to preserve New Zealand flora and fauna and reduce the negative impacts of tourism. 14 National Parks have been created, representing 20% of the country’s land, and 2 regions are registered to the Unesco World Heritage List: Tongariro at the Centre of the North Island Centre and Te Wahipounamu on the South Island South West. Maintained and managed by the Department of Conservation, the New Zealand National Parks offer a wide range of activities including VTT, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, kayaking of fishing (trout only).
There are also 34 natural marine reserves in New Zealand, where fishing and seafood picking are strictly forbidden. In another hand, if you choose to camp, you will notice that there are plenty of choices for camping in New Zealand, where many rules apply. For instance, it is quite difficult to find a camping spot for non self-contained vehicles in New Zealand. The country does a lot to reconcile between economical and environmental challenges, choosing sustainable tourism.
We hope we made you dream of encountering the wonderful animals of New Zealand and we count on you for discovering this land with respect. We stand for a responsible and sustainable tourism in New Zealand and we, and therefore our clients, support conservation programs. Contact us to organise your dream travel in New Zealand.
They call me the cautious adventurer and the animal paparazzi. Travel and photography are my two passions. I love to conceive and experience those unique journeys where we dive into History and take the time to reconnect with Nature.
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