Under a scorching December sun, elders of the Māori group Ngai Tāmanuhiri sing an incantation. A dozen people, each clutching a cardboard box from a fast-food restaurant, begin a short climb up the steep hill at Longbush Ecosanctuary on Te Ika-a-Māui, New Zealand’s North Island. As the singing fades, the hikers arrive at a hilltop barricade and pass through a padlocked door. The group is comprised of representatives of Ngai Tāmanuhiri, conservation trusts, or government agencies. The precious treasure in each takeaway container is a young tītī, or muttonbird, that is about to be released into its new home: a predator-proof, purpose-built—and very pricey—breeding colony.
It is ironic that the tītī are carried in fast-food containers. Admittedly, they are fast. They have been clocked at speeds of up to 159 kilometers per hour as they travel some 64,000 kilometers round trip from their feeding grounds in the northern hemisphere to their breeding habitat in the southern hemisphere. And while the chicks are also food—and have been a staple of the Māori diet for at least 700 years—tītī embody all three principles of the “slow food” movement: good for those who eat them, for those who harvest them, and for the planet. They also offer a slow return on investment. Once the birds released at the Longbush breeding colony fledge and leave their artificial burrows, it could be seven years before they return to lay their first eggs.
That a seabird is deserving of such care, expense, cooperation between diverse groups of people, and the blessing songs of elders speaks to its cultural and ecological importance. While tītī are seemingly ubiquitous—most recent estimates of 21.3 million in and around New Zealand make them one of the most common seabirds in the Pacific—they are in a steady decline and are rated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “near threatened.” Concern about the survival of the sooty shearwater (as it is know elsewhere in the world) and its continued presence on the landscape and in Māori culture has brought together a cadre of people who have blended traditional knowledge and modern scientific practices to forge a future for the species.
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article: Briony Penn
photo: blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo