Did beavers once live in the South?

'Just because we haven't got an actual specimen doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.'
'Just because we haven't got an actual specimen doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.'
Were the Upper Clutha lakes once home to beaver? Wanaka historian Richie Hewitt has drawn together all the known accounts of beaver and otter sightings over the last 240 years and does not discount the possibility an animal of that sort lived in the South, or still does. Mark Price reports.

In 1844 Maori chief Jack Rakiraki helped surveyor John Barnicoat draw a map in his journal showing the ''great lagoons'' at the head of the Clutha River - Wakatipi, Awia and Wanuk.

The map is confusing in that it shows Awia as about the shape and in the location of Lake Wanaka and Wanuk likewise for Lake Hawea.

But the map is intriguing also for having the word ''beaver'' written next to the eastern shore of Wanuk - but without further explanation.

In 1950, historian William Taylor, in Lore and History of the South Island Maori, referred to a ''floating island'' in Lake Hawea that Maori legend suggested was the work of a taniwha and some considered was the work of a beaver-like animal known as a kaurahe.

Those are just two of the snippets of information retired Wanaka bank manager Richie Hewitt has gathered up over the last 30 years and compiled into a booklet called Otter or Not, held at the Wanaka Library.

Richie Hewitt, of Wanaka, has compiled accounts of beaver and otter sightings in the South.
Richie Hewitt, of Wanaka, has compiled accounts of beaver and otter sightings in the South.
Mr Hewitt believes an animal of some sort might well have existed.

''Just because we haven't got an actual specimen doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.''

He recognises the possibility some of the dozens of sightings may have been of seal pups, or ferrets or some other known animal.

But, he nevertheless urges people to be on the lookout, just in case.

''As long as somebody takes notice and looks.''

Even Captain James Cook has played a part in the animal mystery. After a visit to Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Sound, during his visit to New Zealand on Resolution, in 1773, Cook wrote: ''A four-footed animal was seen by three or four of our people but as no two gave the same description of it I cannot say what kind it is.

''All, however, agree that it was about the size of a cat with short legs and of a mouse colour.''

One seaman said it had a bushy tail and reminded him of a jackal.

Cook: ''The most probable conjecture is that it is of some new species.''

And Julius von Haast wrote in 1861 of an animal the size of a rabbit that left tracks like those of an otter.

This 1844 map specifies the location of beaver in the Upper Clutha.
This 1844 map specifies the location of beaver in the Upper Clutha.
Mr Hewitt has recently turned up a 1950 paper, by German cryptozoologist Ingo Krumbiegel, of Hamburg, who speculated New Zealand might have had an animal similar to Australia's duck-billed platypus. His main evidence was two accounts from Dusky Sound of sightings of an animal that smelt like a musk rat and had a thick tail not unlike the tail of a beaver.

''A man named Tom Crib ... had not himself seen the beaver, but had several times met with their habitations.''

These, according to Crib, were dams on rivers with ''houses like beehive''.

''Here at last a concrete account for the first time,'' wrote Krumbiegel.

Historian Gavin Menzies took the business of strange animal sightings to a whole new level in his 2002 book 1421 The Year China Discovered the World.

He suggested two sailors who saw a ''strange animal'' in Dusky Sound in 1831 helped prove the Chinese visited New Zealand long before Europeans. The sailors, he said, described a 9m-long animal, with a metre and a-half tail, standing on its hind legs, nibbling foliage.

Menzies suggested the description fitted a mylodon (a now extinct sloth) the Chinese could have taken aboard in Patagonia.

Distinguished historian Herries Beattie noted the stories of otter in his 1954 book Our Southernmost Maoris, and that scientists and others had ''poohpoohed'' the idea.

But Beattie did not discount it.

''If reliable men said they had seen an animal unlike any of those known to them I did not doubt their word ...''

The accounts of sightings Mr Hewitt has found are not all historic. His booklet contains accounts of unusual animal sightings by people still alive today.


The facts
Beavers
• The second-largest rodent in the world.
• Once common in North America and Asia.
• Hunted for fur and for use in medicine and perfume.
• Herbivore with powerful front teeth for chewing wood.
• Build dams and ''lodges'' on rivers and streams.
• Broad, flat tail.
• Can weigh over 25kg.

Otters
• Long, slim carnivores that eat mostly fish.
• Thirteen species ranging up to 45kg in weight and 1.8m in length.
• Live up to 16 years and are often considered playful.
• Made famous by books such as Tarka the Otter and Ring of Bright Water.


- mark.price@odt.co.nz

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