Kiwiosities – The legend of the Kiwi Otter

The legend of the Kiwi Otter

Despite the fact that no one  has ever found a skeleton, the legend of the New Zealand otter persists, particularly in the back country of Southland. In her book  New Zealand Mysteries, Robin  Gossett has collected a  wealth of anecdotes from  witnesses, including  Maori traditions of a small  otter like animal called the  waitoreke.

Some of the European sightings are easy to explain as small seals or large rats, while others test the imagination, such as an account of  eating a waitoreke while out eeling with  Maori on the  Waiau River in Southland.

The European records begin with Captain James Cook who anchored in Pickersgill Harbour  at Dusky Sound, Fiordland, aboard the Resolution on his third voyage here in 1773.   Cook observed that for 3-4 days while they set up tents ashore, several people saw a four-footed animal  about the  size of a cat, with short legs and a mousy colour. Beyond that none could agree on a description.

The two naturalists of the expedition, father and son J.R. and George Forster, were not convinced, suggesting one sighting was simply the  ship’s cat hunting birds. New Zealand has only two  land native  animals, both tiny bats.  Our isolation from  other land masses began in the age of dinosaurs, and land  mammals simply did not evolve here.

Follow the evidence in  New Zealand Mysteries by Robin (Jenkins) Gosset, Bernard Heuvelman dismissed the possibility of a native otter in his book On the track of  unknown animals with a  chapter entitled ‘Waitoreke. The Impossible New Zealand Mammal’




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Gordon Ell, a former journalist and wildlife film-maker, is the author of many popular books about New Zealand's historic and natural heritage.