Published on nzherald.co.nz the 13.12.2020. | By: Peter de Graaf
A huge success only possible thanks to Auckland Zoo: after 180 years, the wētāpunga return to the Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island.
Note: For almost two centuries there have been no wētāpunga in the Bay of Islands. This is an important place for New Zealand’s fauna and flora because the islands are a refuge for endangered indigenous species. They are kept clear of invasive species. Wētāpunga are also called Little Barrier giant wētā. Wētā are a family of Ensifera. A large New Zealand special effects company based in Wellington and famous for the “Lord of the Rings” movies is also named after them. Most species of the family live in Australia and New Zealand. This particular species, which can way up to 70 grams, was often sighted even in the 1950s, although the population rapidly declined afterwards. Invasive Polynesian rats were to blame, which massively spread after the stray cat problem had been solved.
Wētāpunga are the main source of food for the South Island saddleback, also called tīeke, a bird that hunts insects during the day. The rats, however, also hunted during the night, which is when they mainly forage, and thus the wētāpunga were under a constant, unnatural pressure that led them to the brink of extinction. They were and are still hunted by other species, which carry less weight though. In 2004, when the rats had been dealt with, the populations could finally recover. However, an ex-situ breeding programme was much needed to save the species, and with it all the other species that depend on it in the ecosystem.
Therefore, several animals were captured, and a breeding programme started in Butterfly Creek and Auckland Zoo. It worked very well, and numerous animals could be brought back to nature, where they also could reproduce. The species used to populate all of northern New Zealand, and not just the small island Little Barrier, after which it is named and which lies south of the Bay of Islands. Its return is important for the ecological balance in the habitats, which rely on these palm-sized insects.