I had wanted to meet him for some time, the moose man of Fiordland. Among hunters, nature lovers and those who simply enjoy a good mystery, admiration had grown for this retired wildlife biologist who stubbornly insisted that descendants of moose imported from Canada in 1910 were still living in New Zealand’s largest national park, a half-century after they were assumed to have become extinct.
Now, as the anchor-chain rattled out of its locker and splashed into the charcoal waters of Wet Jacket Arm, I watched a tall, grey-haired man emerge from the forest and stride to the water’s edge.
“Welcome to Herrick Creek,” he said as the dinghy scraped on the stony beach. It was like arriving at a sacred site. From that isolated clearing in the backmost back of beyond, Ken Tustin has conducted a 35-year search for moose—the most intensive wildlife hunt ever mounted in New Zealand.
We set out on “the gumboot tour” as he called it, a quick scout around the forest to look at signs of browsing from a few years earlier, when a moose had overwintered in the valley. Splintered stubs, stripped bark and snapped branches, indicators of the “demolition feeding” practised by moose, stood out clearly among an understorey of regenerating shrubs and fern.
Ken stretched an arm as high as he could and pointed to where a thumb-thick sapling had had its top broken. “Only a moose could do that,” he said. Adult moose will browse comfortably up to 2.7 metres above ground level, while red deer, the only other deer species in Fiordland, cannot reach much higher than 2 m, even when bracing their front legs against a tree trunk.
Nimbly jumping across a small stream, Ken pulled down the branch of a broadleaf shrub to show how moose strip foliage using their prehensile upper lip. “Deer nip off the terminal shoots,” he explained. “Moose crop the whole branch with a sideways swipe of the head.”
On our way back to the beach he showed me the camp where he and his wife, Marg, stay for four or five weeks at a stretch while they comb the surrounding hills for moose sign. A wisp of smoke curled up from the fireplace of river stones. A billy hung on a wire hook nearby. Quintessential adventure: living off fish, soup and camp-oven bread, two people on a quest to find and photograph the largest, most elusive animal in the country.
The Fiordland moose story has its beginnings in the snows of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the winter of 1909, acting on a request from the New Zealand Government, the Canadian Government authorised the capture of 17 young moose calves which were transported to what is now Elk Island National Park for hand-rearing on cow’s milk and willow brush. Ten of these animals—six females and four males—were subsequently shipped to New Zealand for release in one of the wildest, wettest, most remote parts of the country: Fiordland, a million hectares of glacier-carved, forest-covered wilderness in the south-west corner of the South Island.
By the time they were released on April 6, 1910, the calves were 10 months old and as tame as pets. When they surveyed the mountainous terrain and dense forest at the head of Dusky Sound, and perhaps felt the bite of Fiordland’s legions of sandflies, liberty seemed to lose its appeal. Several calves “returned to their crates until we upended them,” wrote one member of the release party. Eventually the reluctant animals made their way into the forests and out of sight, to form what is today believed to be the only wild-moose population outside the species’ natural range (northern North America, north Asia and northern Europe).
This was actually the second attempt to establish a moose herd in New Zealand. The first, in 1900, happened a few hundred kilometres north of Fiordland. Of four animals released (10 having died in a storm during the long voyage from Canada), only one semi-tame cow survived. Over the next 14 years this hapless beast was occasionally spotted wandering, Northern Exposure-like, through the streets of Hokitika.
It wasn’t that New Zealand’s European settlers had a particular fascination with the gangly ungulates: moose were just one of scores of species introduced by government agencies, acclimatisation societies and private individuals to “improve” the fledgling colony. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the era of the Grand Reshuffle—the global redistribution of species for the purposes of commerce, sport and the nostalgic remembrance of home.
In New Zealand’s case, a land of flightless birds, ancient reptiles and Tolkienesque forests received an ecological makeover from which it has never recovered. Millions of dollars are now spent each year to try to restrict the depredations of possums, rats, mustelids, goats, rabbits, deer and a host of other introduced animals, not to mention the hundreds of terrestrial and aquatic plants that have spread like triffids, choking forests and clogging waterways. New Zealand’s conservation professionals have, by necessity, become pest and weed eradicators of world renown.
Yet those responsible for the wave of introductions believed their efforts were nothing short of redemptive. “Nature neglected New Zealand in providing game animals,” wrote Thomas Donne, the founding head of the colony’s Tourism Department and a champion of exotic importations Man has remedied the omissions.”
Moose were Donne’s brainchild, as were seven other deer species, Himalayan tahr, European chamois, Canada and snow geese, various ducks and owls, and raccoons. Several failed to establish.
Donne’s vision of New Zealand was of a vast game park, the existence of which would “induce the world traveller to include New Zealand in his itinerary”. It was a dream shared widely by his contemporaries, a colonial impulse to create a “Britain of the South”.
One reason the well-intentioned introductions wreaked such ecological havoc is that, before the arrival of humans, New Zealand was essentially a mammal-free zone. The sliver of land that would become the New Zealand archipelago split away from the parent landmass, Gondwana, some 80 million years ago—before the Age of Mammals. Apart from a few species of bat, no terrestrial mammals succeeded in crossing the water barrier thus created.
As a result, the indigenous flora and fauna never had to cope with the evolutionary “life in the fast lane” that characterises continental situations, in which efficient mammalian browsers, grazers and hunters dominate the landscape. Local plants adapted to the modest nibblings of flightless ratites and rails, not the voracious appetites of four-legged herbivores.
When deer were ushered into New Zealand’s lush rainforests, what they found was the equivalent of an unlimited smorgasbord. Without predators or harsh winters to check their increase, numbers exploded. British red deer, especially, ate their way into almost every corner of the country.
Moose did not. In the decades following their introduction they spread no more than 40 or 50 km from the release site in Dusky Sound, and the population may never have exceeded 100 individuals. Licensed hunting of moose was first allowed in 1923, but few animals were sighted, let alone shot. In 1930, despite obviously low numbers, their legal protection was removed. Moose were lumped together with all other introduced ungulates and declared a menace to New Zealand’s forests. Since it was not feasible to remove them from so inhospitable and remote a location as Fiordland, their future was left to chance.
Over the next 20 years, occasional sightings and kills were made, but moose never became the sporting drawcard they were intended to be. In the total recorded history of the herd, fewer than a dozen moose were ever shot, and only three of these were trophy animals. The last trophy was shot in 1952; thereafter, the population was considered extinct. The Fiordland moose experiment had apparently failed.
There is something about the presumption of extinction that galvanises a certain type of mind—a mind like Ken Tustin’s. In the mid-1960s, Ken was studying for a degree in zoology and ecology at Victoria University. He then earned a forestry degree at the University of British Columbia, specialising in wildlife management. During the summer holidays back home, he worked as a contract hunter, shooting deer, tahr and chamois in order to collect demographic data and reproductive information. As he mixed with hunters and wildlife ecologists, he heard stories about Fiordland moose and started keeping a moose file.
In 1971, while taking part in a wild-animal survey in Fiordland, Ken heard a piece of news that would alter the course of his life. A professional deer hunter had supposedly sighted a moose cow and calf, and there were rumours he had shot the cow. The hunter refused to comment on the matter, but the event prompted an official inquiry into the status of moose in Fiordland. Were the big animals extinct after all? An 11-week moose survey was organised for the following year, and Ken was chosen to lead it.
That trip left him in no doubt about the continued existence of moose. One team member found a cast antler that could not have been more than a few years old. Ken saw moose sign only hours old: a bedding place that was still warm, hoofprints still filling with rainwater despite the continual downpour (it rained on 24 consecutive days during the survey period), moose and human tracks overlapping, even a smell unlike that of any red deer he had ever smelt (“less musky, more goat-like,” he says).
The team concluded that, yes, moose were still present in Fiordland, but that the herd was extremely small and “likely to go down the tubes unless something extraordinary happened,” Ken says. The problem was the proliferation of red deer. The moose’s slight advantage of reach, coupled with its ability to digest woody material, was nullified by the sheer numbers of red deer and their consumption of most deer food in the forest.
But the “something extraordinary” did turn up—the wild venison trade. With the advent of small, manoeuvrable helicopters in the 1970s, commercial hunters were able to penetrate the Fiordland wilderness and take out huge quantities of red deer meat to supply a booming European market. Shooting from machines with the doors removed, aerial hunters could kill more than 100 red deer a day, recovering them later and transporting them to waiting ships. This sudden removal of the dominant browsing species allowed the forest to regenerate and, Ken believes, gave moose a reprieve.
More than three decades after the 1972 survey that brought him so close to his quarry, Ken continues his search for the remnant herd.
During a working life that has included eel fishing, possum trapping, deer hunting, wild-goat capture and flying helicopters in Antarctica, Burma and Laos, he and Marg have kept returning to Wet Jacket Arm to pick up the trail. While they are keen to photograph a moose, it is the challenge of trying to understand the animal and its ecology—discerning patterns of movement and seasonal shifts, the distribution of foodstuffs, the range limits of the herd and so on, from interpretation of sign—that occupies most of the Tustins’ time while in the field.
It was while examining fresh moose browse a few kilometres from their campsite in 2002 that the Tustins found a few strands of hair snagged on a broken branch. They kept the sample in their freezer with 40 or so other tufts collected over the years, and in 2005 had them analysed by the Wildlife Forensic Laboratory at Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario (see sidebar).
The 2002 sample, along with one other, was identified as belonging to Alces alces, a.k.a. moose. Because hair degrades quickly in a wet environment like Fiordland’s (where annual rainfall can exceed eight metres), the findings are the most compelling evidence yet that moose are still living in the area.
Forensic results may be scientifically conclusive, but sceptical members of the public crave something more persuasive: a photograph. Since 1994 the Tustins have been trying to obtain this grail by deploying various combinations of still and video cameras in trees near known animal paths and “choke” sites—geographical bottlenecks through which animals must pass to get from one area to another. The cameras are self-triggered by heat and movement, using infrared sensors adapted from home-security systems.
To date, 6000 camera-days have yielded around 1500 pictures of red deer and one blurry video image of a “probable” moose.
Are these the most secretive moose on the planet, then? Not necessarily, says Ken. It’s just that, unlike red deer, moose are solitary animals, and in Fiordland they seem to travel widely, perhaps because of a scarcity of food. An adult moose’s daily requirement is around 25 kg of green matter a day, and suitable shrubs at moose height are a limited resource in the Fiordland forest because they don’t recover quickly from moose’s destructive browsing, and because red deer, increasing in numbers again following the collapse of the wild venison market, eat the young seedlings before they can reach a height for moose to browse comfortably. (Unlike red deer, which are efficient grass-grazers as well as shrub-browsers, moose have difficulty dealing with short growth, needing to splay their long forelegs or kneel in order to reach the ground.)
The animal’s innate wariness also frustrates matters. Although a 400 kg moose might seem like an easy target, as Ken explains in his book A Wild Moose Chase, “Big doesn’t mean clumsy. Moose are more furtive than deer in the bush. And they have a habit of planting—or freezing—then sneaking out quietly after you’ve passed.”
Apart from the expected problems with his photographic subjects—animals moving or feedaing on the wrong side of a camera tree, or being outside the sensor range—there have been endless technical frustrations, calling to mind Thomas Edison’s 999 ways not to make a light bulb glow. Cameras fog up in the rain or freeze up in the cold. Sensors are triggered by snowfall, birds and storms, causing precious film and batteries to be wasted on “air shots”. Waterproof housings have been ripped open by kea, birds with a gift for sabotage. It is also possible that moose are so well insulated that they don’t give off sufficient heat to trigger a camera.
Still, Ken believes the magic shot is “only a blink of luck away”. Once he has a Big Guy on film, will that mark the end of the moose road for him? He says no. “It’s really only the beginning.” Apart from any other considerations, the rediscovery of moose has conservation implications, and he hopes that his 30-plus years of involvement in searching for and studying these animals will have earned him a place at the table when the future of the herd is decided.
Moose are classified as noxious animals under wildlife legislation, as are all species of deer, and as such cannot be condoned in a national park. They may have roamed the valleys around Wet Jacket Arm for a century, but Fiordland’s moose are, officially, trespassers. Ken would like to see their status reassessed, not just to allow moose to remain in Fiordland but also to address their scientific importance. A hundred years of adaptation to the climate, food sources and competitive environment of Fiordland should count for something, he reckons. “We’re not talking about a scale insect here. The moose is a significant animal which has evaded detection for decades, and has gone unacknowledged in the scientific literature for 50 years.”
Conservation matters aside, Ken argues that moose are part of the country’s cultural history, and their story should be taught to the nation’s children. “Kids need to know there are still some mysteries out there, and that you don’t have to be an athlete or a celebrity to do something significant. You can be a little old couple like Margie and me.”
My last memory of Wet Jacket Arm is of looking down from a helicopter as it rose off the beach at Herrick Creek and seeing that “little old man” at the water’s edge, arms raised in farewell, a tiny figure in a timeless landscape.
Beyond him in one direction lay the forest, green upon endless green; in the other, the fiord walls, plunging to ancient, ice-scoured depths. This is wilderness at its most primeval and magnificent. A fine place, indeed, for a moose.