Hunting mythical creatures

Sunday Star Times

 

Big cats, `extinct’ songbirds, moa, native otters there’s a zoo-ful of shy and mysterious creatures roaming the countryside if New Zealand’s cryptozoologists are to be believed. Are they just chasing dreams or is the truth out there? Kim Knight reports.

It was a dark and stormy night.

OK, says Vicki Hyde, president of the New Zealand Skeptics, so it wasn’t stormy. But it was dark.

And there was something out there. Big, black, bulky. Just sitting there, watching.

"We stared. It stared back."

She threw a shoe. It didn’t move. "Too big for an ordinary cat. Too still for a dog. Too quiet for a possum."

A quick dash inside and the outside lights went on to reveal: an upended bucket.

"Did we feel silly? You bet."

It can happen to anyone, says Hyde. Mistaken identification leads to incorrect assumptions and misperceptions, she writes in her new book Oddzone.

"It doesn’t mean you’re foolish or stupid or insane. Just human."

And humans love a good mystery. Is there a yeti in the Himalayas? A Nessie in the Loch? A moose in Fiordland?

The hunt for a remnant population of moose liberated in New Zealand bush in the early 1900s is more than three decades old. So is the search for the South Island kokako, last reliably sighted in the 1950s and 60s. Student filmmakers recently went on the trail of a mysterious black cat in Canterbury. And now moa are back in the headlines, with news that next month, an Australian researcher will cross the ditch to find a colony of the giant birds in Te Urewera.

Who are these people who devote lifetimes to the hunt for the unknown?

Ken Tustin, 62, has amassed around 600 nights in the Fiordland bush trying to prove the existence of moose. The closest he has come is the collection of stray hairs, DNA-tested by scientists in Canada, who say his theory is almost certainly correct.

"I read articles saying I’m obsessed," says Tustin. "I think [my story] tells kids, hey, in 2008, there are some great adventures still to be had. There are unsolved things and wonderful mysteries out there."

He knows he’ll need photographs to silence the critics some people say the hairs prove nothing more than that the hunter has been hoaxed. Tustin, and his wife Marg, have had remote cameras in the bush for years. "We’ve probably put about 10,000 camera nights into it." So far, no moose "and about 2000 red deer".

He says it’s a lovely personal challenge.

"Man thinks he controls the planet but, in effect, we’re being outfoxed by a very large, charismatic animal."

For researchers like Tustin, and 60-year-old Rhys Buckingham, who is convinced the South Island kokako still exists, the common thread is begrudging admiration for their prey.

"How come you can’t find a thing the size of a horse?" Buckingham asks Tustin.

"How is it you can’t find a stupid squawking crow?" retorts Tustin.

What keeps the pair going?

"You’ve got to have some mystery in your life," says Buckingham who is fitting in a phone interview around two three-day dance parties.

He says the South Island kokako is an incredible songbird and he believes he has collected numerous tape recordings of the bird that’s been dubbed "the grey ghost". Naysayers reckon he’s simply recorded tui.

"I used to be more obsessed when I thought there was a chance to save it from extinction," says Buckingham. "I’m getting more disillusioned now, with what appears to be a calamity facing much more common birds, with stoat and rat plagues. I think I’m too late, I haven’t been successful… it would be so magnificent to save it from extinction."

THE MOOSE and the kokako did, at least, once exist. But are there other, more mysterious creatures roaming New Zealand?

In 1966, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand included a section headed "Animals, Mythical". "Numerous tales of monsters, ogres, goblins and fairies, and weird `hairy men’ who devoured unwary travellers and waylaid hunting parties have long been part of Maori lore," it said. "In all probability, such tales of water-dwelling monsters and other huge reptiles known as kumi were nothing more than distorted folk memories of the crocodile of the western Pacific or Asia."

The entry gives slight credence to the waitoreke an aquatic, otter-like creature. Julius von Haast was believed to have acquired a portion of skin from the supposed animal. Charles Darwin wrote a letter, now held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, querying its existence: "If I have not utterly exhausted your patience, I should be particularly obliged if you would inform me whether you think the evidence is really good that there formerly existed some animal (with hair?) like an otter or Beaver: I am much surprised at this. Could it not have been any water bird or reptile?"

Lemuel Lyes, archival researcher with Natural History New Zealand, says the existence (or otherwise) of the waitoreke is important even if it is now extinct. "If it could be proven to have existed once, then perhaps that would shatter some conceptions about New Zealand’s natural history."

Here’s a theory: New Zealand is rumoured to have been visited by Tamil explorers. Te Papa Museum records the 1836 discovery of a ship’s bell, inscribed with ancient (at least 500 years old) Tamil script, being used by Whangarei Maori as a cooking pot. As it happens, says Lyes, Tamil sailors were known to use tame otters to catch fish. "Maybe, pre-Tasman days, some Tamil lost their otter?"

Lyes says it’s feasible a small number of the animals could exist undetected. "We’re supposed to have this huge population of stoats and weasels and things, yet how many New Zealanders have actually seen them? What’s to stop small pockets of otters living in some sanctuary down south?"

Cryptozoologists the name given to people who study creatures whose existence has not been substantiated say there is a very good chance of discovering unknown animals in New Zealand.

According to Hawke’s Bay-based researcher Tony Lucas, "We still have many areas in the South Island which remain relatively unexplored. These remote regions hold the best hope of harbouring a new, or previously thought extinct, species."

This is the country, after all, that gave up the takahe half a century after it was thought to be extinct. The Chatham Islands taiko had not been seen for 111 years until it was dramatically rediscovered on New Year’s Day in 1978. And as recently as 2003, the New Zealand storm petrel, gone for 150 years, was sighted off the coast of Whitianga.

But how about those reports of a giant black cat in Canterbury? Last year, Mark Orton, a former film student who now works for Natural History New Zealand, trekked the region collecting eyewitness sightings for a documentary called Prints of Darkness. "I can only tell you what I saw," Toni May tells the camera. "I can’t tell you what it is."

If it was a feral cat, says another interviewee, "it was an Arnold Schwarzenegger of a cat".

The rogue panther is an international cryptozoology mystery similar stories frequently circulate in United Kingdom and Australian media.

"The characters we featured in our film were not nutters," says Orton. "They firmly believe in what they saw."

His personal theory? "I think there’s possibly a rather large breed of feral cats. They’ve probably thrown up the black gene through years of interbreeding. Through their stealth and willingness to survive, the black cats have had the biggest success and they’re the ones thrown up more often than not."

The filmmakers based themselves at Panther’s Rock Tavern, Mayfield. The pub got its name in retrospect and now hangs a mock big-cat road sign in the bar. Orton says locals laugh at the story of giant felines. "They’ve made fun of people in the community who have been open enough to admit the story. Some of the people we ended up putting in the film didn’t go to the mainstream media because they didn’t want the exposure."

REX GILROY knows how they feel. The 64-year-old bills himself as the "father of Australian cryptozoology". Next month, he and his wife Heather will travel to New Zealand to search for moa in Te Urewera where they claim to have previously found moa tracks and a nesting site.

"A lot of people are frightened to go to the media," says Gilroy. "They [the media] play it up as a joke but it may affect the life’s work of some serious researcher. I just say we’ve got to be prepared to keep an open mind and investigate the evidence.

"You’ve got to be born for this sort of work," Gilroy tells the Star-Times. "As an open-minded field researcher, I prefer to look for the evidence rather than dismiss something out of hand because a textbook says it’s extinct."

He will go back to a site he says is home to "maybe half a dozen" small, scrub moa. And that’s not all. Gilroy says years ago, he found "tracks of bare human footprints, not too large … but I’ve often wondered who was getting around in the middle of nowhere, in the forest."

Could it be the mysterious Moehau New Zealand’s version of the Big Foot mystery? Gilroy is keeping an open mind.

"It’s difficult for me, because I’ve got to differentiate between hoax sightings and believable ones … like some road workers, in the pouring rain, about 10 years ago, in the Eglinton Valley before the Milford Tunnel. They were in a shed, waiting for the rain to stop, and on the edge of the jungle were two birds emerging from the bush, about eight feet [2.4m] in height. And they were chewing leaves off trees … I get to know when someone’s telling the truth. You can tell embellishments."

Gilroy says "you’ve got to be a bit eccentric in this business. If people think you’re a little bit crazy, they leave you alone so you can do your work.

"I want people to question, to draw their own conclusions. I think you can do no more greater service to man than make him think."

Hunting mythical creatures | Stuff.co.nz

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