22 February 2019

Wildlife of the West Coast; native and introduced

Heading to Franz Josef Glacier and hoping to see glaciers, lush rainforest and wild coastlines? You won't be disappointed. Glacier Country is loaded with an amazing array of unique landscapes.

What about wildlife? Whilst Westland Tai Poutini National Park is abundant with plant life, the same can't be said for the animal population. But if you're willing to look a little harder, you may spot some unique creatures in the landscape. The animals of the West Coast are an impressive bunch, as they've adapted to life in harsh conditions.

Here are three amazing animals that survive in the shadows of the Southern Alps.

Tahr: perfectly at home in the Southern Alps

The story of tahr in Westland began when thirteen tahr were introduced to the area in 1904. Westland Tai Poutini National Park is a delicate ecosystem and the introduction of this animal, who are perfectly adapted for life in steep alpine terrain, was a disaster. By the 1970's tahr, along with deer and chamois, were doing serious damage to the alpine environment as a result of their taste for native grasses, shrubs and flowering alpine plants. The fragile environment could not cope with the huge numbers so in the 1970's official culling and recreational hunting of tahr was allowed. It's estimated tahr numbers are between about 6,000 and 9,000 today. Today, they are hunted by recreational hunters who prize them for their rareness and difficulty to catch.

Tahr on the Southern Alps

Kea: the cheekiest of them all

Out of all the creatures in Westland, it is the kea that you are most likely to meet. These birds are notorious for their cheeky, inquisitive behaviour. It's not unusual to meet one of these characters in the car park at Franz Josef Glacier. Unlike the introduced thar, the kea are native to New Zealand. This stunning mountain parrot thrives in the chilly alpine environment of the South Island of New Zealand, including Westland's glacier country.

The kea is infamous for its inquisitive, confident nature and is known for its fondness for eating the rubber lining of car doors or chewing on an antenna or two. Over millions of years, kea developed their trademark curiosity and inquisitiveness to enable them to source new food sources in a challenging landscape. Perfect for life amongst the Franz Josef landscape.

The kea is a parrot endemic to New Zealand and has been touted as one of the most intelligent birds in the world. These days, the birds are protected with numbers estimated between 1,000 and 5,000.


 Photo courtesy of Nicky Barkla 

Kiwi: a national icon, and very hard to find

Whilst New Zealand has very few large animals, and only one native land mammal (the pekapeka bat) there is a broad bird population. New Zealand's most famous bird is, of course, the kiwi. And if you're heading to Franz Josef Glacier, you're heading into one of the few places in the country where kiwi are found in the wild.

Throughout New Zealand, the kiwi is under threat, Okarito Forest (just near Franz Josef) is home to the rarest of the world's five species of kiwi. The Rowi is a special little kiwi that is on the 'nationally vulnerable' list. It is thought that there are only 450 of this species of kiwi left in the wild. Kiwi are vulnerable to the introduced pests that live in Westland, like stoats and rats, who kill the birds and feed on their eggs. This small population of Rowi is now battling to survive in the 11,000 hectare Okarito forest and needs all the help they can get. Make sure you visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre when you're in Franz Josef Glacier, they have a successful kiwi breed and release programme. For most of us, this is the closest we'll get to a rowi.


We hope your travels through Westland will involve some kind of interaction with the local wildlife, native or introduced.