Saving the Tawaki

In an undisclosed location, in an unspecified area of the South West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, there is a secret place where the rainforest meets the sea. This is where the Tawaki make their nests. As the third rarest penguin in the world, the Tawaki have chosen well. This is a relatively remote area and the forest is thick and inaccessible.

Gerry and his wife Ann have taken on the task of protecting the Tawaki and keeping their secret. This of course, must be balanced with careful ecotourism so that enough money can be raised to fund expensive house-keeping efforts, such as ridding the area of the rats that steal penguin eggs. Under his determined stewardship, Tawaki numbers in Gerry’s patch have tripled, but are in steep decline elsewhere.

Gerry tells me that lobbying to keep dogs out of the area has been extremely difficult, but crucial. Dogs, particularly when left unattended, can kill many penguins in a short time. Humans, however are now the Tawaki’s main problem. Gerry drops us off at a non-descript section of the road, tells us to turn off the GPS on our phones, and then he drives off to hide his van (a tell-tale beacon for anyone looking for the trail into Tawaki territory). When he returns, he gives us strict prohibitions on our behaviour to ensure the Tawaki will not need to change their behaviour. Gerry tells me that in general, people respect the rules, but I am saddened to hear that wildlife photographers tend to be the exception. It seems tourists who stumble upon the Tawaki are thrilled just to get a glimpse of this rare species. Wildlife photographers, on the other hand, can be a very driven species. When getting the shot becomes more important than caring for the animals, something has gone terribly wrong. How does the original wonder and beauty of seeing animals in the wild (that surely draws people to want to record these precious moments), become lost in the service of ego? The metal of a wildlife photographer should be measured by the size of their heart, not their lens.

We start the morning in rain and then, unexpectedly, the sun comes out in full force. After about three hours, Gerry must go, but he leaves me in charge of counting the penguins and recording their activity in terms of movement up and down the dirt ramp from the cave, the beach, bush and the stream. I quickly realise this is not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes a penguin comes down the ramp (DR x1), gets to the beach but instead of entering the water to go fishing, it turns around and goes back up the ramp (UR x1). I’m concerned that recording it in this way makes it seem like there were two separate individuals. Sometimes a penguin will come down the ramp (DRx1) but then go back up to scold another penguin for lagging behind and then, after a squabble, two penguins come down the ramp (DR x 2). However, it’s hard to be sure whether one of those penguins is the same one that just went up the ramp. Some penguins come down and enter the water for a short time, only to swim back in and go back up the ramp. When I ask Gerry how to code these instances, he smiles and says “it’s complicated”. Getting it right is important. Gerry’s system is the only indication we have of the numbers and the health of this population and Gerry is here everyday, counting. “I have no idea how many come and go at night” he sighs. “I have to work at night”.

I spend six hours melting in the baking sun, documenting and photographing the Tawaki. I witnessed couples, mating postures, fights, pecks on the bottom and cooperation. Sometimes a Tawaki comes down the ramp, waits at the bottom for others to follow and then they group up and enter the water together. Similarly, one Tawaki might swim in and wait on the beach for a partner or for a group of friends to arrive. Sometimes a couple comes down the ramp to meet and greet a couple coming in from the sea and then they escort the new arrivals up the beach and back up the ramp. Should I count this as DR x 2 + UP x 4 or just UR x 2? You see how complicated it can get!

The walk through the magnificent primeval rainforest to the beach, is lush and sublime. I heard a bell bird learning to sing. Only a fledgling vocalist, it chirped a few notes that would soon become a recognisable song. I saw a shining cuckoo dive into a stinging nettle and come out unscathed, with a juicy caterpillar in it’s mouth. Gerry was the first person to document this rare behaviour, seen only in the cuckoos here, who seem unaffected by the vicious plant. I heard the cry of a penguin chick, well-hidden in a nest somewhere deep in the dense forest.

What a privilege to spend time with the Tawaki and their protector, Gerry and his wife, Ann. It restores hope to see the difference that one determined, passionate “penguin nut” can make.

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