Maoris and the Kakapo: Iwi Perspective

Patricia Latas
May 14, 2014 share



This is my friend, Estelle Leask (Ngāi Tahu, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Ruanui), at an emotional homecoming to Whenua Hou. She is a direct descendant of the original Maori and European couples that colonized Whenua Hou. She is also a Kakapo volunteer. Her story is a full circle that tells the tale of the Maori colonization of New Zealand, and the importance of the Kakapo. Today, saving the Kakapo is also saving a rich cultural heraitage of the Ngāi Tahu, an iwi (tribe) of the Maori people of New Zealand.

Photo credits to Te Karaka, 24 July 2013 posting "Homecoming". Photographs Ranui Ngarimu, Helen Brown and Malcolm Rutherford.

The predominant Maori tribe of New Zealand's South Island, Ngai Tahu, has strong cultural, spiritual and traditional associations with the kakapo.

A wonderful account of the people and Whenua Hou can be found here:



Wahine Kete


Kakapo were very important to the Maori. They were eaten, used for clothing and wealth, and made pets. Unfortunately the Maori were responsible for the great depopulation of the Kakapo; by over utilization and by predation from the rats which came with them. Extinction was very nearly completed by European settlement and introduced European predators.

Except from Notornis, the publication of the New Zealand Birds organization
"[ Notornis, 2006, Vol. 53: 193-194 • 0029-4470 © The Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Inc. 2006 ]

Kakapo in Maori lore
Rob Tipa
770 Portobello Road, Portobello,
Dunedin, New Zealand.
In Maori lore, there is an old story about the kakapo that
has survived the test of time. Legend has it that toroa, the
great ocean wandering albatross, was once a land bird but,
because of its brilliant white plumage, it was conspicuous
and vulnerable on land. So it swapped places with the
kakapo, which was once a seabird, and soared out to sea,
its markings blending beautifully with the foaming white
crests of the southern ocean swells. Meanwhile, the kakapo
vanished into the twilight forests of Aotearoa, its mossy green
plumage perfect camouflage for its new home. Until the
arrival of humans, it had few natural enemies. It was so safe
in the depths of the bush, it eventually lost its ability to fly. Its
greatest defence was its colour, nocturnal habits, and instinct
to freeze rather than flee.

This survival strategy served it well until the arrival of the
Polynesian kuri (dog) that relied on scent rather than sight to
flush out game. Kakapo were sitting ducks, so to speak. And
kuri grew fat on kakapo when an iwi settled in a new area.
The kakapo is one of a number of native New Zealand
birds regarded as taonga (treasured) species to the Ngai
Tahu iwi. It was hunted for its meat, skin and feathers.The
meat was a great delicacy for tangata whenua, but it had a
“strong and slightly stringent flavour”, according to western
tastes. The bird was plucked and skinned before eating.
Some were preserved in their own fat in baskets made from
the inner bark of totara trees or in poha (bags) made from
kelp. Bundles of kakapo tail feathers were attached to these

containers for decoration and to identify the contents.
Feathers from the kakapo, kaka, kakariki, koekoea and
ruru were also used to decorate the head (te reke) of the
taiaha, but this decoration was removed during warfare.
Kakapo skins with their feathers intact were softened
and used to make beautiful kahu kakapo (dress capes)
and kakahu (cloaks) for wives and daughters of leading
chiefs. Sometimes feathers were individually woven into
ceremonial cloaks, a slow and painstaking task. Some of
these highly prized garments are preserved in museum
collections today. The ceremonial cloak worn by New
Zealand team flag-bearer, Beatrice Faumuina, at the
Athens Olympics had feathers in it from a range of rare
native birds, including kakapo.
The birds were easily caught by dogs, snares and pit
traps, cornered on moonlit nights when a food source was
abundant or when birds assembled on their whawharua
(breeding hollows). One of the most detailed accounts
of traditional methods used to catch kakapo comes from
ethnographer Elsdon Best (1925), who recorded the
following tale from the Tuhoe iwi in the Ureweras. At night
the birds congregated at a whawharua (hollow place)
and began a strange ritual by beating their wings on the
ground, uttering a weird cry [known as booming] and
forming a pokoroa (hole) in the ground with its beak. Each
whawharua had its leader, known as the tiaka, Best wrote.
This bird walked around the outer edge of the whawharua
like a sentry and did not join in the activities. At dawn
this smaller bird led the flock back to their hiding places.
During this mating ritual, hunters captured the birds by
approaching from downwind and waiting until the dance
started. Obviously, the birds had a keen sense of smell.
Provided the tiaka was captured first, the rest could be
caught by hand. If the tiaka escaped, so did the rest of
the birds.
For several hundred years southern Maori relied on
moa from the inland plains of Te Waipounamu and seals
on the coast as their primary food source. As these sources
declined about 1350 AD, permanent settlements based on
these hunting grounds split up and the emphasis switched
to a more transient lifestyle, fishing, and seasonal hunting
forays into the bush for smaller species such as kakapo.
The birds may have been well camouflaged, but
they left plenty of evidence of their movements. Southern
ethnographer James Herries Beattie (1994) recorded that
the birds had a refined taste for the best aruhe (bracken
fern root) and left plenty of sign of gnawed pieces behind
them. They only ate the inner part of the best roots and
rejected the stringy fibre. Where this refuse was found,
Maori learnt to search closely nearby for the best aruhe.
This was a starchy survival food for them during hard times
and food shortages.
Another common sign of kakapo activity in an area was
when harakeke (flax) blades had been chewed into strips.
When this sign was observed, the birds lost condition (maiki
or maieke) and the flesh tasted kaua (bitter), according to
Beattie’s contacts. “The kakapo lives in rua (holes) made
like umu (ovens), only deeper”, he wrote. “The bird is
only sought when it is fat, otherwise it is no good. It has a
habit of jumping into its hole and shaking itself and the old
people said it was trying to shake the fat out of itself and
make itself maiki”.
According to Maori folklore, when Polynesians first
arrived in Aotearoa over 1000 years ago, kakapo were
found throughout the country. Bones found in caves and
middens confirm the species was once widely distributed
throughout the North and South Islands. By 1843, they
were almost extinct in the North Island. In Nelson, Westland
and Fiordland were small population strongholds, but the
species was already in serious decline in the south as well.
European settlement greatly accelerated this decline, with
increasing hunting pressure, forest clearance and the
introduction of mammals that became kakapo predators
and competitors for the same foods. In 1899, Westland
explorer Charles Douglas recorded the birds were caught
simply by shaking the bush on which they were feeding
and they would fall to the ground (Langton 2000)
Sprung by a dog with no recollection of its last
meal, the cornered parrot of the night had one last line
of defence - a kick like a mule. “Ka kiki te waewae” might
have won it the odd battle with a young, inexperienced dog,
but kakapo were already losing the war of survival.
Localities: Aotearoa – Maori name for North Island but
now commonly used as the Maori name for New Zealand;
Te Waipounamu - Maori name for South Island; Birds: toroa –
albatross (Diomedea sp.); kakapo – Strigops habroptilis; kaka
– Nestor meridionalis; kakariki – parakeet (Cyanoramphus
sp.); koekoea – long-tailed cuckoo (Eudynamys
taitensis); ruru – morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae);
moa – collective name for large flightless birds of Order
Dinornithiformes (Family Emeidae and Dinornithidae);
Plants: harakeke – flax (Phormium tenax); bracken fern –
Pteridium esculentum
Beattie, J. H. 1994. Traditional lifeways of the southern Maori.
Dunedin, University of Otago Press
Best, E. 1925. Tuhoe: Children of the Mist. Wellington, A. H.
and A. W. Reed.
Langton, G. (ed.). 2000. Mr Explorer Douglas: John
Pascoe’s New Zealand classic. Christchurch, Canterbury
University Press.


The kakapo skins with feathers intact, were used by Maori to make beautiful green dress-capes and cloaks.




Pendant for a powerful woman leader, on display at Otago Museum



Excerpt from Ngai Tahu archives:

"Here Ngai Tahu recounts its history of the bird - which is illustrative of the relationship that Maori throughout New Zealand once had with the kakapo.

Kakapo - A taonga (treasured species) of Ngai Tahu.

Every year, family groups of Ngai Tahu spent time inland gathering and hunting seasonal food resources. On these journeys they followed a network of trails that linked places for gathering food. These places were called mahinga kai, and they stretched from the mountain haunts of the kakapo to the sea. The seasonal journeys to mahinga kai became pivotal to the way of life in Te Waipounamu (South Island).

Each trail was memorised as a sequence of named landmarks, river systems, and resting places, each with stories that connected them to ancestors and tribal history.

In these journeys, Maori took advantage of the mating behaviour of the kakapo by hunting them during the summer months.
Ngai Tahu generally hunted the birds with dogs and, once caught, the kakapo were usually plucked or skinned before eating. 

Others were preserved in their own fat in wooden baskets made out of the inner bark of the totara tree or delicate containers made out of kelp. Bunches of kakapo tail feathers were attached to the containers to identify the contents and provide attractive decoration.

Sometimes the feathers were individually woven into the cloaks, and the skins were softened and used to fashion chiefly garments for the wives and daughters of the leading chiefs. A very high value was placed on these garments.
Today some of these beautiful capes and cloaks still exist and Ngai Tahu refer to them as taonga, or treasures, that have been handed down through the generations and thereby link them to their ancestors of the past. Even today when someone complains about being cold they will often be given the response;

"Me kauhi Ranei koe ki te huruhuru Kakapo, pu mai o te taonga?"

"Shall I cover you with the feathers of the Kakapo, heaped up here from the south?"

The New Zealand Government, through the Department of Conservation, acknowledges the association of Ngai Tahu with the kakapo by consulting them when making policy decisions concerning the protection, management, or conservation of the kakapo.
Through the Ngai Tahu Deed of Settlement, Ngai Tahu also has a representative on the Department's Kakapo Recovery Programme


Whenua Hou, Codfish Island, Southland, New Zealand
New Zealand
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