Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh Why?

Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh Why?

A brief history of acclimatisation societies

In an alternate reality, flocks of emu can be seen on the Otago Peninsula. Breathas are regularly in the ER after getting into fist fights with kangaroos on a night out. The Otago University Tramping Club has to brief their members on the dangers of bear and wolf attacks before any trip.

While many pest species ended up in Aotearoa by stowing away on ships, some came from deliberate introductions by groups known as acclimatisation societies. Many of these introductions are still around, but many more failed – some of which it’s hard to imagine running wild in Aotearoa today.

For plenty of settlers, the absence of familiar wildlife meant a lack of appreciation and respect for the evolutionarily unique and incredible aspects of the native nature surrounding them. Ignoring the kōaro, inanga, tuna (eel), and kokopu caught by tangata whenua, European settlers were disappointed that there were no easily caught freshwater fish that met their expectations. “Just as New Zealand forests are destitute of game, so are its rivers destitute of fish … they boast no single fish worth the angler's catching,” said one colonist. Without any large mammals, settlers felt the same about their hunting prospects too.

Acclimatisation societies were set up in the 1860s to actively introduce foreign species to New Zealand with the hope they would ‘acclimate’ to new homes alongside settlers, providing familiar species for settlers to hunt and fish. Popping up all over New Zealand, these societies were more popular and prolific than smallpox in early 19th and 20th century settler societies. They were voluntary organisations and they received money from the government to support their efforts. Otago’s Acclimatisation Society, established in 1864, received £500 per year (roughly $40,000 today) from the Otago provincial government to introduce familiar British species, particularly small birds like sparrows and chaffinches, which remain common on campus trees today. 

The Protection of Animals Act 1867 put in place rules for the acclimatisation societies around the country. The legislation was designed to protect introduced game rather than native species, but in doing so it outlawed importing predators like foxes, venomous reptiles, hawks, and vultures – which would have been disastrous for native species had they been allowed to enter the country. (One Fox did make it through, and he edits this magazine, which is a disaster in and of itself.)

Under these new laws, to register an Acclimatisation Society all you needed was three or more friends in the office of the Colonial Secretary of New Zealand and a little moolah, and you too could cause Godzilla levels of environmental damage! Section 6 of the act declared that if an acclimatisation society tossed animals into the bush for “the purpose of increase” then they had to publish which animals have been released in the newspaper “not less than twice in two successive weeks.” Animals for “the purpose of increase,” were often sourced from other colonies through species agreements, in addition to being shipped straight from Mother England. Those boat journeys were miserable and lethal enough for the humans who made them, so you can imagine one of the biggest problems was simply getting the animals to Aotearoa alive. 

Trading animals with acclimatisation societies in other British colonies was common practice. An 1872 issue of the New Zealand Herald reported that the Whanganui Acclimatisation Society had exported four kiwis to Australia, trading them with the Adelaide Acclimatisation Society for “some rooks [the crow-like bird that is now an agricultural pest in Aotearoa] in return”. In hindsight, it seems like a bit of a shit deal.

Acclimatisation societies would also support the animals that made it to Aotearoa, to the annoyance of some. After settlers complained about blackbirds and thrushes destroying gardens, the Otago society responded in an 1882 edition of the Otago Witness, saying that “If our English birds develop such habits in this Colony, it should not be forgotten that they earn indulgence, for they must destroy an enormous quantity of grubs, caterpillars, and insects during that part of the year when no ripe fruit is obtainable.” 

Some of the animals brought over by your colonist grandad did well. So well, in fact, that they choked up streams, destroyed landscapes, and out-competed native species to near extinction – damaging food sources that Māori had relied on for centuries in the process. But some animals did so terribly it’s almost comical, like watching someone attempt a parkour jump and tripping over before they even begin. Take kangaroos, for example. 

The idea of a peaceful hike in the bush being interrupted by a kangaroo seems far-fetched in Dunedin, but for the acclimatisation societies, it would have been possible if they tried hard enough. In 1868 the Otago Daily Times documented the Otago Acclimatisation Societies latest animal drop from their annual meeting: “The following stock is now on the grounds of the Society: Axis deer, Kangaroo, Emus, Black Swans, English Wild Duck, Paradise Duck…” The list continued. 

For better or worse, kangaroos did not find a way to flourish in Otago. Eight months later, in December 1868, the ODT released another tragic kangaroo update: “The Manager reported the death of several of the young trout and of the old Kangaroo.” Although several words can be used to describe acclimatisation societies, ‘quitters’ isn’t one of them, with the very same article proclaiming a swap of quail to Port Molyneux, receiving “a kangaroo from Captain Brown, of the Annie Brown”, in exchange. 

A year later, Mr. Clifford (manager of the Otago Acclimatisation Society) went on a trip to Tasmania where it was reported he brought back, along with 2,600 trout eggs for various South Island acclimatisation societies, “a tame kangaroo”. Just the one, for some reason. Obviously, none of these attempts of introducing kangaroos were successful in the long run. Dunedin’s streets aren’t overrun with kangaroos bounding over broken glass or kicking over bins. Pour one out for all the kangaroos lost during this hopping-mad effort. 

As unhinged as Mr. Clifford and his Kangaroos seemed, some of the other acclimatisation societies around the country were even more feral. Sir George Grey, Governor and later Premier of New Zealand, was a bit of an acclimatisation stan himself and managed to bring two zebra over through the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. He also tried to bring in antelopes, monkeys, gnu, emus, kookaburras, and yes – kangaroos. He succeeded in bringing wallabies across from Australia, which today are an increasing pest in many regions of New Zealand.

Further south, the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society had a Californian bear for a while, and they attempted to bring in an African lion. However, like the kangaroo, we do not have bears, lions or zebras kicking around town (probably for the best). Acclimatisation societies often bit off more than they could chew, with a submission to import wolves thankfully being denied. 

The success stories of the Otago Acclimatisation Society are not as funny as their failures, although they make up for it by being as ecologically devastating as possible. The sparrows and finches imported to take care of insects destroying grain would soon start a solo pest career of their own, but the pest that by far takes the hall of fame spot for “Terrible Decisions by The Acclimatisation Societies” is the European rabbit, originally introduced from Tasmania by the Otago Acclimatisation Society in 1867 for hunting. After an initial struggle for establishment, rabbits realised they had no predators here and bred like, well, rabbits. 

It really only takes one person to believe in you, and the ground-breaking levels of economic and environmental harm you could cause. By the mid-1870s to 90s, the widespread devastation caused by rabbits would trigger soil erosion as they overgrazed vegetation cover in Central Otago, with the Upper Waitaki Valley and the McKenzie Country hit particularly hard. Otago pastoral stations lost 545,000 hectares of land due to the ‘Rabbit Plague’ in 1887. A pamphlet in Roxburgh described how four rabbits quickly turned into 40,000 (side note: this pamphlet also self-described Roxburgh as “a small town with little past and no future”. Oof.) Castle Rock Station in Northern Southland lost roughly £5,000 a year as rabbits devoured the countryside, starving out the sheep population. Natives species also suffered at the hands of the European rabbits, destroying the vegetation relied upon for food with devastating food chain effects. In recent years these cute critters continue to be an environmental plague, and the Otago Regional Council describes them as “the #1 pest in Otago”.

The impact of European rabbits didn’t stop at petty crime like property damage either. Their run-on effects included the introduction of mustelids (stoats, ferrets, and weasels), which were meant to be the solution to rabbits, as their natural predators back in Europe. As early as 1879 governments, acclimatisation societies, and even private individuals were importing and breeding the creatures, tossing them out into the rabbit-ravaged wilderness, and praying. Like a landlord painting over mould with lead paint, the attempts to control rabbits with mustelids (or grain insects with sparrows) were unsuccessful as the mustelids quickly realised there were far tastier native birds and lizards to chow down.

Mustelid introductions would prove to be the worst thing to happen to our native birds since they forgot how to fly. By 1910, several bird species had gone extinct due to predation and slow reproductive strategies, unable to survive these invasive species of mustelid. Stoats will kill everything in sight and save what they can’t eat for later. They can travel 70km in two weeks, and are in every type of forest, tussock, pasture or dune. The terminator of introduced pests. All because someone in the Otago Acclimatisation Society thought it might be fun to hunt rabbits (Probably Jeremy. Fuck you Jeremy.) 

So, what about the extinction of these acclimatisation societies themselves? While acclimatisation societies faded in power in the last century, they never really went extinct but instead evolved into something distinctly different. The name ‘acclimatisation societies’ would remain for over 130 years, but the aim of these groups shifted from ecological imperialism to focusing on the protection, legislation and regulation of the animals present. After all, it took so much effort and money to get trout and salmon established in rivers, it made sense to protect and regulate the numbers within. 

Slowly but surely the focus of acclimatisation societies would shift towards conservation, and their original function was no more. Fish & Game were the successors, born from the final ashes of acclimatisation societies after a 1990 governmental review of game management reassigned these duties to the recently created Fish & Game Councils. They would no longer receive government funding, instead creating a profit from hunting and fishing licences. Fish & Game councils act in the interests of recreational anglers and hunters which often sees them campaigning alongside groups like Forest and Bird for the environment, pushing the government to act on the impacts of agriculture to freshwater ecosystems. 

Like Twilight and Kate Bush, the successors to acclimatisation societies have pulled off a reputational comeback, whether intentionally or not, but the impact many of these introductions had on the ecosystems of Aotearoa live on today. So remember, when your farmer’s market lettuce is too expensive because rabbits ate half the crops, or when you find a possum in your flat bathroom, you’ve got the acclimatisation societies to thank.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2022.
Posted 3:39pm Friday 19th August 2022 by Ruby Werry.