A lesson in survival: 100 humans turned out to be too many for the well-being of 58,000 moa

"Please, sir, may we have some moa?"

“Please, sir, may we have some moa?”

Alf read with great fascination today the news – if you can call it news – that the flightless moa was doomed the moment humans landed in New Zealand.

At least, this is what new research suggests, according to this report st Stuff..

Whether they were big or small, moa were wiped out in 200 years and the last were killed nearly 600 years ago, between 1440 and 1445.

It first blush, it is hard to square this environmental vandalism with something drummed into us by our indigenous persons and by such authorities as the Ministry for the Environment), because they insist:

For Māori, the concept of kaitiakitanga is of primary importance. Kaitiakitanga is a fundamental concept of the guardianship of a resource for future generations. It is practised as part of tikanga Māori (customary values and practices).


To manage people’s impact on the environment and on mauri, Māori developed the practice of rāhui. Rāhui are periods when no one may take any resources or particular resources (such as shellfish) from an area. These bans may also limit the size of the species people may take, or the amount of their total catch (Hutching and Walrond, 2007). Today, rāhui are often imposed to conserve a resource or to allow a species to regenerate.

In addition to rāhui, Māori traditionally limited harvests of certain species by season and by restricting access to areas such as fishing grounds. Māori also applied other forms of tapu (restriction) to prevent mauri being degraded (for example, through the pollution of fishing areas by human waste, or fishing grounds being damaged by nets and lines).


Must have been them bloody Europeans who did the mischief.

But wait.

When did the Europeans arrive?

According to Alf’s understanding (gleaned with help from the NZ Encyclopaedia) Abel Tasman spotted this country on 13 December 1642.

By then, according to the stuff at Stuff, the moa were no more.

The encyclopaedia reckons Tasman  would probably have seen the northern part of the Southern Alps, and he may even have seen, far to the south, the peaks of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, as they were later named.

Tasman’s crews encountered indigenous persons during his visit.

They were not very hospitable.

One of Tasman’s small boats, passing between the two ships, was rammed by a Māori canoe. Four of Tasman’s party were killed. It is likely that the Māori, of the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri tribe, saw these strange newcomers as threatening interlopers, an impression reinforced when the Dutch responded by shooting and hitting one Māori.

But who was so unfriendly towards the moa?

According to the Stuff report, when humans arrived there were an estimated 58,000 moa in the country.

“Moa were hunted to the point of being critically endangered within 150 years of settlement, after which only a few small populations clung on in remote mountain regions, but only for another 50 years before they vanished forever,” George Perry of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment and School of Biological Sciences says.

“This is the first time we have been able to show that extinction was both rapid and synchronous across New Zealand,” Perry said.

Landcare palaeoecologist Janet Wilmshurst said previous studies have relied on older and less precise dates, so the new research helps settle a long-standing debate about the speed and nature of this extinction.

Size made no difference – from more than 200 kilograms to less than 50kg moa were all killed.

The research analysed 653 radiocarbon dates from moa remains to pinpoint the extinction time line.

Landcare’s Jamie Wood is quoted as saying the research provided insights into how intense hunting pressure on the slow-breeding birds produced a catastrophic decline.

“We always suspected extinction was remarkably rapid for the moa and we now have evidence that none of them survived into the post-European era,” he said.

Perry said that with about 58,000 moa in the country and a human founding population in New Zealand of 100 people growing at 1 per cent a year, it would have taken just five birds harvested per person per year to eliminate moa within 200 years.

The paper’s authors tell us  extinction occurred contemporaneously at sites separated by hundreds of kilometres.

“Our results demonstrate how rapidly megafauna were exterminated from even large, topographically and ecologically diverse islands such as New Zealand, and highlight the fragility of such ecosystems in the face of human impacts,” the paper said.

The authors said there was little doubt human activity killed the moa. The way it reached extinction was unclear.

“Extinction seems to have loosely followed the ‘overkill’ model, but whether it occurred contemporaneously throughout New Zealand or followed a ‘blitzkrieg’ rolling extinction front is again less clear.”

Assuming hunting was the key factor, the researchers said their extinction models provided insights into the movements and strategies of Polynesian hunters in New Zealand.

The Stuff report is wonderfully sensitive to the feelings of our indignous persons.

“Polynesian” is as close as it gets to identifying the culprits.

The word “Maori” is missing.

The aforementioned Ministry for the Environment item blames Polynesians, too.

The Polynesian ancestors of the Māori people came to New Zealand by canoe between 1000 AD and 1350 AD. After Polynesian settlement, fire had a more widespread and frequent impact on the environment. By about 1600 AD, about a third of the original forest cover had been cleared and replaced by tussock, bracken, and light scrub. With the change in landscape, a quarter of New Zealand’s endemic land-based birds, including eight species of moa, and a fifth of endemic seabirds became extinct (Ministry for the Environment, 1997).

Over subsequent generations, Māori acquired in-depth knowledge of the New Zealand environment and developed effective conservation practices. These practices became customs that iwi and hapū used to manage access to and limit the depletion of the environment. These customs continue to shape Māori approaches to environmental management today.

Roughly translated, if bad stuff was done, it was done by Polynesians.

But the acquiring of in-depth knowledge of the New Zealand environment, and the development of effective conservation conservation practices, was done by Maori.

Yep. Fascinating.

One Response to A lesson in survival: 100 humans turned out to be too many for the well-being of 58,000 moa

  1. Barry says:

    I always knew they were lying about guardianship! And about everything else!

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