In the natural world, the phrase ‘Big Five’ was first coined by big-game hunters in Africa referring to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Today, all but a few travelers prefer to hunt them with a camera.
New Zealand offers a new twist on the expression with its own exclusive, endemic ‘Small Five’. Let’s meet these rare and endangered birds, marine mammals and reptiles in person together with some equally rare friends!
Story, Map and Images courtesy of Tourism New Zealand
The kiwi is New Zealand’s icon and the national bird of that country. New Zealanders have such affection for this chicken-sized creature that they happily label themselves as kiwis to all in the world. There are five species of this nocturnal flightless bird in New Zealand and all are endangered. With hair-like feathers, long whiskers and nostrils at the end of its bill, the kiwi wanders the forest floor to sniff out and probe for insects, worms and grubs. It lays the largest egg relative to its body size of any bird in the world. The best place to see kiwi in their natural setting is on the isolated, windswept beach of Mason Bay on Stewart Island off the southern tip of the South Island.
The nocturnal kiwi lays the largest egg relative to its body size of any bird in the world. Tourism New Zealand
The yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho in Maori, and its small cousin, the blue penguin, both get the cute vote from visitors far and wide. As they strut with dignified formality from the sea to their nests on the shoreline, their comical seriousness makes it impossible not to smile. Coastal Otago on the South Island is the place to enjoy an encounter of the penguin kind. The current status of this penguin is endangered with an estimated population of 4,000. It is considered one of the world’s rarest penguin species. The main threats include habitat degredation and introduced predators. It may be the most ancient of all living penguins.
Yellow-eyed penguin may be the most ancient of all living penguins. Chris McLennan
At approximately 1.4 metres/4.5 feet in length, the Hector’s dolphin is one of the world’s smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and the rarest marine dolphin. The species is named after Sir James Hector at the Museum of New Zealand who examined the first specimen found of this dolphin in the 19th century. Found only in New Zealand waters, Hector’s dolphins frequent the South Island coast and the best way to spot them is to take a tour around Akaroa Harbour on Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch. Or take a walk around the aptly named Porpoise Bay on the remote Catlins Coast, where they come very close to shore.
Hector’s Dolphin is the world’s rarest marine dolphin. Dina Engel & Andreas Maecker
The tuatara is a unique relic of the past — the only beak-headed reptile left in the world. Every species of this reptile family, except the tuatara, died out around 65 million years ago. Tuatara can live for over 100 years, and were once found throughout New Zealand. Now they are only found in the wild on protected offshore islands with around 30,000 living on Stephens Island off the northernmost tip of the South Island. In more accessible captivity, tuatara can be seen at a number of locations including ZEALANDIA, the Karori Sanctuary Experience in Wellington and Invercargill’s Southland Museum. While they are often referred to as “living fossils” from the dinosaur era, tuatara only grow to 24cm/9 inches in length and are entirely harmless.
The Tuatara is the only beak-headed reptile in the world; all its relatives died out 65 million years ago! Tourism New Zealand
The cheeky kea is a species of parrot found in forested and alpine regions of the South Island. They are widely regarded as the most intelligent species in the bird world and one of the few alpine species. The kea was once killed for bounty as it occasionally preyed on livestock, especially sheep, but it has received full protection since 1986. Kea are renowned for their curiosity, which not uncommonly result in tales of them carrying away unguarded items such as sandwiches, fruit and even passports! Kea can solve logical puzzles, such as pushing and pulling things in a certain order to get food, and will work together to achieve a certain objective.
The Kea is a parrot species widely regarded as the most intelligent in the bird world. Ian Trafford
New Zealand is 268,680 square kilometers on two main islands and a sprinkling of small (mostly uninhabited) ones. It is roughly the size of Great Britain, Colorado, or Japan, with a human population of 4.2 million, and 40 million sheep. This makes it one of the least crowded countries in the world.
New Zealand’s separation from neighboring land masses about 100 million years ago allowed many ancient plants and animals to survive and evolve in splendid isolation. Complementing the unique flora and fauna is a landscape that contains an unrivalled variety of landforms. In a couple of days of driving, it is possible to see everything from snow-covered mountain ranges to fine sand beaches, lush rainforests, glaciers, fiords and active volcanoes.
The kakapo is a native New Zealand parrot – the largest parrot species in the world with a distinctive owl-like face and a waddling gait. The bird thrived in the years before humans set foot on the isolated South Pacific land mass but, like so many of New Zealand’s other native wildlife species, the kakapo was decimated by the introduction of predators including stoats, weasels and rats. By 1995, kakapo numbers had plummeted to 50 survivors spread throughout a number of isolated sanctuaries. Today, with a world population of 124 and a comprehensive Kakapo Recovery Program underway, the kakapo is on its first tentative steps to recovery.
Sirocco is the poster bird of the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program, without a doubt one of the Kakapo Recovery Program’s successes. However, his own existence was not always certain. He contracted a respiratory virus as a three-week-old chick and was removed from the care of his mother, Zephyr, for treatment. The treatment proved successful but, as he was hand-reared in the absence of other kakapo, he became imprinted on his human care givers. As a result, Sirocco now plays a crucial role in raising the profile of his endangered species.
Celebrity Kakapo, Sirocco. Mike Bodie
The BBC TV series Last Chance to See, broadcast in 2009, put a spotlight on New Zealand’s most endangered wildlife. As program hosts, British actor Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine, encountered many of the country’s unique creatures.
“I think the most inspiring story was the Chatham Island robin,” Carwardine declared, “because it went down to one female called Old Blue, and she had eggs inside her. She laid the eggs and the [naturalists] were able to protect them, and use other birds as foster parents. She basically saved the species from extinction.”
“That one bird was the mother of an entire species,” added Fry. “We went to see them. I must admit that I was a bit grumpy about going there …. then we tramp until we see this little black bird …. a perky little robin. And it takes all the bad feelings away and you think, ‘My God, does it know how rare it is?’”
The Chatham Island black robin got down to one bird before its miraculous comeback. Don Merton
Where to Start:
Tourism New Zealand website, www.newzealand.com.
Air New Zealand‘s global connections, www.airnewzealand.com.
When to Go: Northern hemisphere visitors to New Zealand should be aware that the seasons are reversed “down under”. The warmer high-season months (November to April) are great for outdoor exploration. Summer (December to February) is particularly popular for food and wine festivals, concerts and sporting events. The South Island has a temperate climate; the North Island is more sub-tropical. In fact, New Zealand is a year round destination.
Editor’s Recommended Guidebooks:
Rough Guide to New Zealand, September 2015.
Lonely Planet’s New Zealand Travel Guide, September 2014.
Editor’s Recommended Tour Operators:
Naturally New Zealand Holidays, www.nzholidays.co.nz, is a longstanding active tourism specialist with expert knowledge of the North and South Islands as well as smaller offshore nature reserves. Walking and hiking, nature and ecotours, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, cycling and horseback trekking are all on the menu as well as sailing and small-scale shoreline cruises. The vast majority of nature clients are over 45 years with most English-speaking overseas guests from Australia, North America and the UK.
ElderTreks, www.eldertreks.com, offers a recommendable 17-day introduction to the rich culture and nature of both the North and South Islands. The next New Zealand tour departure is February 2017 with this respected grassroots adventure operator for active 50-plus seniors.
With 36 years experience, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours offers 140 birding and natural history tours and cruises to over 100 destinations. Expert leaders and local guides ensure fun, educational, and memorable trips, while supporting local conservation organizations. See our annual New Zealand birding tours. www.ventbird.com.