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.
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,...