TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.
The devastating effects of introduced wasps in New Zealand, particularly on kaka (the forest parrot, here beautifully filmed) remain a serious issue. The horde of yellow and black marauders has left scientists struggling to protect animal and human victims. This film looks at the effect on the ecosystem of wasps, who compete with natives for honeydew and prey upon insects. Bandits of the Beech Forest won the Environment Prize for Best Film Illustrating Protection, Preservation or Conservation of Bird Life at the Festival du Film de l'Oiseau.
This award-winning film looks at the strange and ethereal world of New Zealand's limestone areas. The rocks and caves reveal ancient whale fossils, moa hunter art — and evolutionary one-offs (like giant carnivorous snails) that live in a limestone world. The film goes into the darkness to find glow-worms, cave wētā, albino crayfish and skeletons of moa who met their death falling down tomos (shafts). In underground cathedrals, exquisite formations formed by the alchemy of water and limestone are captured. There is also footage of Waitomo Caves and Te Waikoropupu Springs.
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).
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 documentary tells the story of the inimitable kea. The 'Clown of the Alps' is heralded as the world’s smartest bird (its intelligence rivals a monkey’s). Kea are famous on South Island tracks and ski fields for their insatiable (and destructive) inquisitiveness. Curiosity almost killed the kea when it was labelled a sheep killer, and tens of thousands were killed for a bounty. After shots of baby kea being fed, there is extraordinary night footage in clip four of the 'avian wolf' in action. The award-winning film makes a compelling case for the charismatic kea as a national icon.
In this 1992 Wild South documentary, pioneering underwater photographers Wade and Jan Doak investigate how fish have evolved over 400 million years on the Northland coast. They explore ocean dwellers off the Poor Knights Islands, where myriad nimble life forms thrive — from radar-like sensory systems and kaleidoscopic colouring, to the intricacies of jaw and fin shape. The Doaks conduct novel experiments to showcase them on camera in this Natural History New Zealand production. This episode was narrated by nature documentary filmmaker Peter Hayden.
From Māori myth to climbing and photography, to gliding and paraponting around its peak, Aoraki-Mt Cook is vividly captured in all its moods in this award-winning NHNZ portrait. Filmed for the centenary of the first ascent of a mountain that has claimed over 100 lives, it follows mountaineers as they climb toward the summit, re-enacting Tom Fyfe's pioneering pre-crampon route. Climbers, including Edmund Hillary, reminisce about encounters with NZ's highest and most iconic peak; and Bruce Grant takes the quick way down: a vertiginous ski descent.
This documentary, made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (now NHNZ), charts the progress of the nor'west wind from its formation in the Tasman Sea across the Southern Alps to the Canterbury Plains and the east coast of the South Island. Along the way it dumps metres of precipitation on West Coast rain forest and snow on the Alps, then transforms to a dry, hot wind racing across the Plains. The film shows the wind's impact on the ecosystem and farming and muses on the mysterious effect it can have on humans. It screened as part of the beloved Wild South series.
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.
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 are taken from one island to another more hospitable island in a desperate rescue mission. This is part of an incredible conservation success story led by Don Merton and his NZ Wildlife Service team. With Project Takahē, this documentary captured viewers' imaginations, and was one of the first in the acclaimed Wild South series of 'rare bird' films, which were foundational for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ).
This 1993 documentary surveys the world’s southernmost volcano, Mount Erebus. Cameras travel to never before filmed depths, 400 metres below the sea ice. They also go 3500 metres above sea level into the erupting crater. The film charts what is able to survive in the otherworldly environment, from seals to moss. Solid Water was the third part of an acclaimed Wild South trilogy on Antarctica, which helped establish a relationship between Discovery Channel and TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). It was awarded for Best Camera at the 1994 New Zealand TV Awards.
This Wild South documentary opens with the haunting call of the kōkako ringing out over the forest canopy at dawn. The film tells the story of Aotearoa’s "avian squirrel" and its struggle for survival — living with introduced cats and rats, while the remnants of its North Island rainforest home face logging. The songbird is framed as an icon of both conservation loss and hope. The script is by poet Brian Turner. The use of composer Hirini Melbourne’s score (with lyrics in te reo) was praised by award judges at British nature film festival Wildscreen.
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 talismanic Eve of her species, 'Old Blue') down cliff faces, to left-field libido spurs. This 1988 Listener Film & TV award-winner united two earlier Wild South docos and updated the robin’s rescue story to 1987. It originally screened on Christmas Day 1987; and was reversioned for this 1989 edition.
This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).
For 150 years, southern right whales (tohorā) were hunted to the brink of extinction. But the discovery of a “lost tribe” in the Southern Ocean sparked hope that their numbers are increasing. This documentary — made by veteran nature filmmaker Max Quinn for The Discovery Channel — follows a research expedition to learn about the pod. Breathtaking and intimate underwater footage, including a fabled white whale and new-born calf, reveals the behavior of these gentle giants. The award-winning film also captures soaring royal albatross, vomiting sea lions, and a flightless duck.
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.
The Southern Alps contain some of the youngest mountains in the world. In this NHNZ documentary awesome four seasons footage and sound design evoke the the tenuous richness of life in the vast, geologically dynamic landscape. Garrulous kea (the world’s only mountain parrot), Himalayan thar, “snow thrush” (crickets) and Mount Cook buttercup (the world’s largest) exist in a world of thundering avalanches and creaking glaciers. The classically filmed doco won a Merit Award at the 1993 International Wildlife Film Festival, Missoula.