Weka on the hunt

What’s the story with weka?

Weka are part of the Chatham Island identity. Indeed, people born on Chatham Island call themselves “Weka”, as opposed to “Kiwi” for people born on the New Zealand mainland. And so it is a surprise to many people that weka are not native to the Chatham Islands and that they can be hunted.

Weka and chick
Weka and chick

Weka belong to a group of birds called rails. The Chatham Islands originally had seven species of rail but now (following the arrival of humans and the pests they introduced) there are only 3 surviving species – pukeko and the rarely seen marsh and spottless crakes.  The three surviving species are widely distributed throughout New Zealand and the southwest Pacific, reaching the edge of their range on the Chatham Islands.

Weka are flightless rails, about one kilogram in weight, that originally occurred throughout mainland New Zealand, including Stewart Island. The four subspecies that are currently recognised have declined throughout much of their ranges, with buff weka becoming extinct in the South Island by 1930. Causes of population declines are likely to include predation by dogs, ferrets and stoats, disease, and food shortages during droughts.

Fortunately for buff weka, 12 were introduced to Chatham Island in 1905. There are conflicting reports as to who was responsible, with some authorities saying James Fougere released them at Te One, and others claiming that Walter Hood released them at Kaingaroa. Maybe both men did independently. A few weka from Chatham Island were subsequently released at Tupuangi on Pitt Island in about 1970. Weka can be seen anywhere on Chatham and Pitt Islands, reaching their highest density in marram grass covered dunelands.

Weka thrive on the Chatham Islands, to the extent that thousands are harvested every year for food. This is perfectly legal, and is authorised under the Chatham Islands (Wildlife) Notice 2015. However, if Chatham Islanders wish to take prepared weka back to mainland New Zealand (where all weka are fully protected) a permit is needed from the Department of Conservation Chatham Islands.

Weka on the hunt
Weka on the hunt

Weka eat a wide range of food.  They are very effective predators on eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, and this probably explains why duck numbers crashed on the Chatham Islands in the early 1900s. Today, the Department of Conservation controls weka at a few sites on the Chatham Islands where they are potential predators of critically endangered birds. Most notably this occurs within the Tuku Nature Reserve and adjacent private land, where the entire world population of Chatham Island taiko breeds – fewer than 40 pairs are known. Weka control also occurs at some breeding sites of the endangered Chatham Island oystercatcher.

Because Chatham Island weka came from the eastern South Island, where they subsequently died out, there are occasional requests from conservation groups and individuals for live weka as part of restoration projects within their former range. An example of this is the Ngai Tahu led project to reintroduce buff weka from the Chatham Islands to Te Peka Karara (Stephensons Island) in Lake Wanaka, that commenced in 2001. Such requests are assessed by the Department of Conservation on a case-by-case basis, following consultation with the Chatham Islands Conservation Board and Chatham Island iwi.

Weka are hunted on the Chatham Islands for food.  Generally a dog is used and the birds are only hunted in the autumn when they are fat and the chicks are independent.

Weka prepared for consumption may be taken to the mainland as long as a permit is obtained from the DOC Chatham Islands Area Office. Unlike here, weka on the mainland are a threatened species and are protected from hunting because of this.  By obtaining a permit you are proving that your weka was legally sourced from the Chathams population.

The preparation of a permit takes two minutes, your name and address with date travelling and number of weka being exported is all that is required, however, if you are wanting to take weka feathers as well, a written endorsement from local iwi/imi would also be needed before a permit is issued.

If you need a permit to export weka to the mainland or if you have any queries please contact the Chatham Islands District Office, phone 03 3050098 or chathamislands@doc.govt.nz

Updated: 01/02/2019

Visiting the Chatham Islands since 1996, Dave works for the Department of Conservation providing advice on the management of threatened species.