Moose arrived twice in New Zealand: one group of four (after their 10 companions died at sea on the way over) were released near Hokitika in 1900. One of these was a very tame moose cow, who was reported as occasionally returning to wander the local streets in search of biscuits (which the animals had been fed on their arrival) for the next 15 years or so.
That introduction being deemed as largely unsuccessful, the Southland Acclimatisation Society gave it another go, eventually getting a handful of moose into Fiordland in 1910.
Moose female near Lake Bowron, Canada.
Nobody was allowed to actually shoot a moose until 1923, when it was deemed that there were enough of them available for game. The first photograph was taken that year, but the first licensed kill didn't occur until 1929. It seems that despite the enormous size of moose (they stand two metres tall at the shoulder), the thick wilderness of Fiordland kept them well hidden.
So well hidden, in fact, that little was heard about the moose in Fiordland until the early 1950s when a spate of shootings and sightings brought them back into the limelight.
After that, moose melted back into the bush and were thought to have gone extinct (the introduced red deer were thought to outcompete them for food, probably keeping their numbers well down) until early in the 1970s when a hunter claimed to have shot a bull and seen a cow and her calf.
Enter Ken Tustin, the "moose man", who was sent by the New Zealand Forest Service to carry out a survey. This trip spawned a lifelong passion for tracking down the Fiordland moose, one that Ken and later his wife have been engaged with for forty years.
During this time he has had a few very close calls - remote cameras picking up grainy images; castoff antler finds; footprints; and the best evidence yet - hair samples that were determined to be moose by DNA analysis in 2000 and 2002.
Ken's determination is legendary. Natural History New Zealand produced a documentary about him, he wrote a book and there have been a spate of media articles and television appearances since. Through all of which Ken has maintainted his stance that the moose remain in Fiordland and has continued his quest for evidence of the errant moose.
The mystery of the moose in New Zealand is one of our romantic tales, where the "good keen man" in many of us might secretly hold out hope that this large deer might still endure there. Hallensteins took it upon themselves to offer up a $100,000 reward for a proven photograph of the Fiordland moose last year - reigniting the interest and our fondness for the story.
The jury's still out on whether or not they remain but there seems to be some compelling evidence (particularly DNA). I've met Ken and I admire his tenacity. I'm not certain myself, but it seems to me that if you're going to hide a creature of that size that likes to swim, then the dense wilderness of Fiordland is probably the place to do it.
Personally though, I'm still holding out for the moa.
Male moose, Lake Bowron, Canada.
What do you think of the moose tale? Could they still be there?
Pictures: Herb Christophers (2010)
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