New Zealand is a coun­try noted for its ex­treme scarcity of na­tive mam­mals. De­spite this, re­ports of our own ap­par­ently in­dige­nous ot­ter-like crea­ture stretch back cen­turies.

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The wait­oreke (or kau­rehe) is ap­par­ently an in­hab­i­tant of the lower South Is­land analagous to the ot­ter, or beaver. Con­fus­ingly, it seems to have been given the at­tributes of both through­out the very long his­tory of its sight­ings. And for such an elu­sive crea­ture it has been writ­ten about by many fa­mous names in our his­tory, among them James Cook and Julius von Haast. With sight­ings lit­er­ally span­ning cen­turies the great­est sig­nif­i­cance of this crea­ture – if it does, or did ex­ist – is as the very rarest of an­i­mals: a na­tive New Zealand mam­mal. Re­cent his­tory has been mixed for the wait­oreke. Sight­ings ap­pear to have all but dis­ap­peared, but on the plus side a fos­sil find in Otago seems to con­firm that na­tive mam­mals once ex­isted in this coun­try.

“The most prob­a­ble con­jec­ture is, that it is of a new species. Be this as it may, we are now cer­tain that this coun­try is not so des­ti­tute of quadrupeds as was once thought.”

James Cook, A Voy­age To­wards the South Pole and Round the World (1777)

Circa 1861: Ger­man ge­ol­o­gist Julius von Haast, hav­ing him­self found what he be­lieved to be wait­oreke tracks, re­counts a sight­ing in a let­ter to a friend. He states that two own­ers of a sheep ‘ranch’ at Lake Heron in Can­ter­bury en­coun­tered the an­i­mal,...

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