New Zealand was once a country abundant with rare and often unique wildlife including kiwis, keas, kakapo and Hector’s dolphins. Its rich forests and remote land protected by the Southern Ocean enabled the animals to live an undisturbed life free from the threat of mammalian predators.
But a thousand years ago their lives were turned upside down. Since humans have inhabited New Zealand they’ve gradually destroyed the animals’ habitats and introduced predators: stoats, ferrets, rats, cats, possums and dogs.
Today many of the country’s iconic creatures are critically endangered and are totally reliant on the help of humans to haul them back from them brink of extinction.
NZ: Sanctuary Keepers travels through the beautiful countryside of New Zealand to find the amazing people who are dedicating their lives to protecting the wildlife and are desperately trying to increase population numbers.
The compelling journey begins in the middle of the South Island, on a high country sheep station situated among the Southern Alps near Arthur’s Pass. Here we meet the ecologist and farmer, Dr Gerry McSweeney who created quite a stir among locals when he fenced half of his farm off to provide a safe haven for native plants and the mountain-dwelling kea.
The kea is the only parrot to live above the snowline and in recent tests earned itself the title of the world’s cleverest animal. Hunting and farming which causes diminishing native plants have meant Kea numbers have plummeted over the last 100 years, so Gerry’s sanctuary is enabling the plants to rejuvenate and provide a home for the parrots to breed and live their lives in safety.
Next stop is the Urewera National Park in the North Island. The park was once a paradise of native bush which teemed with New Zealand’s iconic bird, the kiwi. In 1995, when its numbers had plummeted to an alarming level, scientist Dr John McLennon established the predator control programme, aimed at wiping out stoats from the Park to give Kiwis a better chance of survival.
Seven years on, there are many more kiwis in the area and John believes this increase is largely due to an electrically-charged fenced area that enables kiwi chicks to reach adulthood free from the dangers of their public enemy number one: stoats. However, it’s predicted that kiwis will eventually become extinct outside these sanctuaries.
From the depths of the forests to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, we then head back to the South Island to Banks Peninsula. This area is home to the world’s rarest and smallest species of dolphin: Hector’s dolphin.
These miniature dolphins face increasing risk of being caught in fishing nets and there are now only 200 of the creatures in this sanctuary. Their playful and friendly nature attracts plenty of attention from tourists passing through the town of Akaroa.
While tourists immerse themselves into the harbour waters to frolic with the animals, Sam Du Fresne carries out observational research to track the dolphins’ movements and look for signs of stress.
Sam’s programme was established in 1988 and aims to help humans and Hector’s dolphins live alongside each other and ensure the thriving tourist industry poses no harm or stress to the creatures.
Travelling further down the coast, we meet Oamaru’s yellow-eyed penguins and their dedicated followers, Jim Caldwell who has monitored the birds every day for 22 years and Janice Jones who runs a penguin sanctuary to nurse sick or injured birds.
These penguins face extreme danger from ferrets and local dogs, especially when they remain on land to moult each year. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Janice, this is one of the most successful breeding colonies in the country.
The final destination for the journey is Codfish Island, a small island off the south coast of the South Island. Here we follow the work of scientist Jo Joyce who dedicates her time to monitoring and protecting the critically endangered, nocturnal, flightless parrot, the kakapo.
Jo and her committed team of volunteers spend their nights in the forest with the kakapo during breeding season to monitor their movements and protect the nests when the adult birds go off to feed.
The team’s dedication has meant there were a record 23 chicks born last season and this number is set to rise in the future.
NZ Sanctuary Keepers is a fascinating story that not only explores the challenges facing the country’s precious wildlife, it also looks at the hard, hard work of a group of people helping to prolong the future of these animals.
Although the activities of humans have led the wildlife into this dire situation, the paradox is that the animals are now solely reliant on our help to prevent them from being totally wiped out.