When the takahē was rediscovered in the Murchison mountains in 1948, it made world headlines as a back from extinction story. This documentary checks in on the big flightless birds three decades later, with their future under threat (by deer, stoats and breeding failure). Doctor Geoffrey Orbell recalls the 1948 expedition. Project Takahē was the first Wild South documentary made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). The images of takahē – blue, green and red, plodding in the snowy tussock – marked the first time most New Zealanders had seen the bird in the wild.
The remote Antipodes Islands lie 860 kilometres southeast of Stewart Island. This 1980 documentary follows a Wildlife Service team surveying the islands’ inhabitants who are making all the strange noises – fur seals, albatrosses, petrels, parakeets and snipe, elephant seals and prolific penguins. It also investigates threats to their survival: mice and overfishing in the southern ocean. Winner of a Silver Medal at New York's International Film and Television Festival, this early Wild South episode helped establish the reputation of TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
This wee gem from the 60s Sunday night magazine show records a pivotal New Zealand conservation moment. Wildlife Service ranger Don Merton experiments with rescue techniques to save the endangered North Island saddleback (tieke), a wattlebird surviving on Hen Island. Aided by electronics expert John Kendrick (of National Radio bird call fame) he uses calls to lure the spry birds into mist nets before moving the precious cargo to cat-free Cuvier Island. The world-leading skills developed here were to be crucial in saving the black robin and kakapo from extinction.
In the mid 1970s the Chatham Island black robin was the world's rarest bird. With only two females left, the conservation ante was extreme. Enter saviour Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team. Their pioneering efforts ranged from abseiling the birds (including the 'Eve' of her species, 'Old Blue') down cliff faces, to left-field libido spurs. This 1988 Listener Film and TV award-winner united two earlier Wild South documentaries, and updated the robin’s rescue story to 1987. It originally screened on Christmas Day 1987, before being modified for this 1989 edition.
“These three birds are over half the world population of their species.” Peter Hayden’s narration lays bare the stakes for the Chatham Island black robin, and the Wildlife Service team (led by Don Merton) trying to save them. Merton’s innovative methods include removing eggs from nests – to encourage the last two females to lay again – and placing them in riroriro (grey warbler) foster homes. The black robin documentaries helped forge the reputation of TVNZ's Natural History Unit. Paul Stanley Ward writes about the documentaries here, and the mission to save the black robin.
By 1976 there were only seven Chatham Islands black robins left. It was the world's rarest bird. In a bid to save the species, the surviving birds were taken from one island to another more hospitable island in a desperate rescue mission. This was part of an incredible conservation success story led by Don Merton and his NZ Wildlife Service team. Seven Black Robins and Project Takahē captured viewers' imaginations as part of an acclaimed series of 'rare bird' films that screened on TV series Wild South. They helped forge the reputation of TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
This award-winning NFU short focuses on the tuatara, sole survivor of a reptile species extinct for 135 million years. An NZ Wildlife Service (now Department of Conservation) team search for the reptiles on Stephens Island sanctuary (aka Takapourewa) as they hunt for insects. Voiceover is eschewed in favour of natural sound, and composer Jack Body’s evocative soundtrack. The tuatara are weighed and measured; they can grow up to 80 centimetres, weigh over a kilogram and live 150 years. There were about 100,000 tuatara on Stephens Island when the film was made in 1981.
This Wild South edition joins two legendary New Zealand wildlife documentarians — photographer Geoff Moon and sound recordist John Kendrick — on a 1988 trip to Kāpiti Island. Rangers are learning about, and looking after, the sanctuary’s manu (birds), who are “biological refugees” from the mainland, escaping introduced predators. Dogs monitoring kiwi, a kākā census, and tīeke (saddleback) nest boxes are featured. The two old mates narrate the visit, which includes Moon building a bush hide, and footage of a pioneering 1964 tīeke relocation from Hen Island.
Flightless and nocturnal, the kākāpō is the world's heaviest parrot. By the 1970s the mysterious, moss-coloured bird was facing extinction, "evicted" to Fiordland mountains and Stewart Island by stoats and cats. Thanks to innovative night vision equipment, this film captured for the first time the bird's idiosyncratic courtship rituals, and the first chick found in a century. Marking the directing debut of NHNZ veteran Rod Morris, it screened in the Feltex Award-winning second season of Wild South, and won acclaim at the 1984 International Wildlife Film Festival.
This 1972 National Film Unit production promotes New Zealand’s national parks, from the oldest — Tongariro (established in 1887) — to Mt Aspiring (1964). Besides slatherings of scenic splendour, the film shows rangers clearing tracks, 70s après ski activity on Ruapehu, and school children at Rotoiti Youth Lodge: skylarking, river crossing, and cornflake eating en masse. When this film was made there were 10 National Parks (there are now 14). “In all their variety they’re the heritage of everyone who’s heard the call and felt the freedom of the unspoilt land.”