- Issue: Spring 2020
- Author: Wendy Redal
MOU WAHO, LAKE WANAKA :: NEW ZEALAND
After climbing to the summit of Mou Waho, a secluded island in New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka, I pause to drink in the view. There are no signs of development in any direction. Before me, craggy peaks of the Southern Alps rise from blue waters. The setting feels utterly remote.
As an isolated, protected nature reserve, Mou Waho is an important hub for local conservation projects. Cleared of all nonnative pests and accessible only by boat, it provides crucial sanctuary for two species that have been eradicated or reduced elsewhere. Hiking with our guide, Chris, we’re on the lookout for these creatures: the endemic buff weka—a flightless bird about the size of a chicken—and the mountain stone weta, a prehistoric insect as big as my thumb.
A small population of buff weka was transferred here in 2004 to help save the species from extinction. These birds were wiped out on the adjacent mainland by 1920, a casualty of weasel-like stoats imported in the 19th century. But thanks to better protections, Chris tells us, buff weka have rebounded. We soon see evidence: As we sit down for “high tea” overlooking the lake, a few inquisitive individuals appear in pursuit of our biscuits.
Stoats are still the primary threat to New Zealand’s birdlife. Because stoats can swim more than a mile, locals vigilantly monitor the island for their presence. And because buff weka prey on the weta, locals also build wooden shelters—“weta motels”—where the vulnerable insects find respite from hungry predators. Efforts like these ensure Mou Waho remains a refuge for diverse species.
Before we leave, we plant a tree with Chris. It’s something he does with each tour group to restore the native vegetation. With this small action, we become part of the larger conservation movement underway in New Zealand—and help conserve this special place for its unique inhabitants.