Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The extinction of the moa

You arrived in New Zealand in 1280 from Polynesia, ready to start a new life. The uninhabited lands were temperate and your topical crops wouldn’t grow. You must have been overjoyed when you saw the Moa; giant, flightless birds, some the size of turkeys, others towering three-and-a-half metres tall.

You named them Kuranui, ‘the great treasure’ and you hunted them for their flesh and eggs. You made clothing from their skins and feathers and carved pendants from their bones.

Your folklore taught you to respect the environment, hunting different creatures by seasons, giving them time to recover. But the Moa were slow-maturing; they took ten years to reproduce. When their number dwindled, why didn't you stop?

You used fire as you’d always done, burning the land to cleanse it, to allow new growth. But the broad-leaf conifer forests didn’t regenerate like the jungle had; burning left it barren.

In a hundred years you altered the landscape beyond recovery. You made the Moa extinct; the giant Haast Eagle too, and twenty other birds. But still you didn’t stop. In the 1770s, when Captain Cook came he saw ‘smoke by day or fires by night’ in the scorched islands you now called home.