It seems like the Chatham Islands, long a few half-forgotten little strips of land a few hundred miles off the New Zealand coast, are gaining in popularity. As people search ever harder for places they can truly get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life–and as those places become harder and harder to find–places like the Chathams become increasingly popular as tourist destinations. Anthropologists, too, interested in conservation, find much to learn from the islands–their population is largely self-sufficient, and they have no heavy industry or large-scale manufacturing of any kind on the island.
But the Chathams have a long history of struggling to maintain this balance between hosting outsiders, and preserving what it is that makes their island unique. From the first European settlements down to the present, islanders have had to fight to keep their ecosystems intact. Here are some of the ways they’ve done it.
Saving the Robins
One of the most famous stories surrounding a Chatham Islands species is the story of the black robin. The Chatham Islands have a troubled history until about a hundred years ago. The islands were first settled in the 1500s, and European settlers arrived in 1791, killing off a large portion of the island’s population with disease. Fifty years later, an invasion by the Maori people left the island’s population decimated. The native Moriori were taken as slaves and forbidden to have children within their own race. European settlers ended the dispute, but not before the island’s balance had been seriously upset.
The black robin was one of the animal species most affected by this upheaval. Europeans brought cats to the islands with them, and the native black robin evolved on the island with no native mammalian predators. As such, it was ill-equipped to deal with the predation by cats, and the bird actually vanished completely from the main island.
By 1980, the birds were restricted to Little Mangere Island–and there were only five left. Scientists interested in preserving the Chathams’ habitats came in, and helped save the bird population. They now occupy every island, though they are still considered an endangered species.
The Fate of the Fur Seals
The arrival of European settlers at the end of the 18th century had more far-reaching consequences than for just that little black bird. The island hosts a large population of fur seals, long prized by Europeans for their skins, which made warm coats–the skins could fetch a hefty price on the market, especially back in Europe.
So, of course, commercial vessels moved in shortly after the explorers had claimed the islands for England, and soon British seal ships choked the harbors. The seals were unused to being hunted, at least in such large numbers, and had no real evolutionary defense against the kind of large-scale hunting in which the British were engaged. They all but completely died out before early conservation efforts saved them. The seal fur trade stopped in the mid-19th century, and the seal population has since recovered.
The New Zealand Taiko
One of the world’s rarest seabirds, there are fewer than 150 of these endemic petrels–they don’t live anywhere else in the world except here in the Chatham Islands. Today, they are considered to be the islands’ single most endangered species, tottering on the very edge of going extinct. There are only 15 breeding pairs currently known to researchers, though efforts continue to try and help these birds repopulate their natural habitat.
A number of factors contributed to the decline in the birds’ population over the last 300 years. European settlers brought cats and rats, both of which feed on the birds. Cats can catch the adult birds, and rats can enter the birds’ protective burrows, where they can consume the fledgling taikos before the parents return home with food for the young birds.
Additionally, deforestation and the hunting of these birds for food contributed to their decline. They were actually thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered by David Crockett in the 1970s.