For the Maori in New Zealand, the chicks of the muttonbird are a much-loved delicacy. But only families with the right ancestry are allowed to hunt the birds. One man is fighting for his right to go muttonbirding.
Photo by Bruce Connew
His dad was one of the best sheepshearers for miles around - but he drank. The family lived in a cramped flat in run-down public housing in Hastings, in the north of New Zealand. With eight children there was never enough money for food. Every night there was fighting, screaming and abuse. All the family’s friends belonged to the “Notorious Mongrel Mob“, an infamous Maori gang. As a boy, Dean Tiemi Te Au was allowed to fetch beer and cigarettes for the men. Sometimes he overheard them talking about some islands far down in the cold south.
Dean was six years old when it was suddenly decided they would go to the islands, “to the birds“. But the night before, his dad went to the pub, and the next day they weren’t going anywhere any more. The supplies were unpacked again. After that, whenever the old man started talking about the mysterious islands, everyone laughed at him. No-one believed a drunk. When Dean was ten, the gang leader tattooed his hands with a design of a Maori fishing net. “Whatever your hand touches, it’s yours,“ said the leader. 30 years later, the lines of washed-out ink look like a spider’s web. Dean Tiemi Te Au has dreadlocks and wears a hooded sweatshirt. His slightly slanted eyes are wary. “We lived like dogs“, he says. “But I always knew that we had once been something better. It was a gut feeling.“ The boy didn’t finish school. The language and the world of his ancestors were not welcome there. At the marae, the Maori meeting place, he was introduced to the customs and traditions of his culture. Everyone referred to their whakapapa, their genealogy, which defines who is Maori.
The president of the Mongrel Mob trained the teenager in martial arts. They gave demonstrations at tournaments and set up their boxing ring in pubsand farmer festivals all over the country. When they arrived in the most southern part of the South Island, Dean and his brother suddenly experienced something they had never seen before. Unlike in the north, where the brothers had grown up, the Maori in the south treated them with reverence and respect. “They’re Te Au“, people said, full of awe. In Riverton, in Invercargill, even in Queenstown - everywhere they heard “Te Au! Te Au!“. “We were treated like kings,“ Dean recalls. “There was something about the name.“
But soon he wasn’t living in the Maori world any more. He began dealing in drugs. One day, drunk, he crashed his car into a roundabout. He was severely injured and spent six months in bed, almost completely paralysed. That was the turning point. Dean started attending university courses. He researched his past and his people’s history. And when he had what he thought was his whakapapa, his genealogy, he sent it to the Maori Land Court. Then the legal revisers and researchers of tribal identity gave him back his real whakapapa.
It turned out that at some point down the line, generations before, someone had tried to conceal the true ancestry of the Te Aus. But there it was, in black and white: Dean’s great-great-great-grandfather Te Wae Wae had been an ariki, the highest caste of Maori chiefs. He had owned the land that is the most south-western part of Aotearoa (New Zealand), plus a few windblown, deserted flecks of land in the Pacific: the Titi (Muttonbird) Islands, named after the Maori word for the sooty shearwater or muttonbird. The islands belonged to the crown following 1864, but in 1998 they were returned to the Maori. Today they are forbidden territory. Whoever wants to set foot on one of the 36 islands that are scattered around Rakiura (Stewart Island) needs a permit. The person’s genealogy must be researched
by the Maori Land Court and they have to be proven to be Rakiura Maori. A distinguishing features of this tribe was that some ancestors had shortened thigh bones from so much standing in canoes. A trip to the Titi Islands can take up to ten hours by boat. The weather in this region is unpredictable - even now, boats can get stranded for days in a remote bay. Any further south and you would be in Antarctica. The realm of the birds looks prehistoric: cubistic stone formations on the shore, low tupari trees, some of them the size of bonsai, their trunks blackened from lichen. Millions of sooty shearwaters take a break here from their 25,000-kilometre annual journey to mate. From the islands around Chile, Cape Horn, New Zealand and Tasmania, they fly over Japan and California towards the Gulf of Alaska,only to come all the way back again to end up in the sub-Antarctic by September. It takes seven years before the first offspring is conceived. Every ash-coloured female lays just a single egg into one of the small burrows in the ground. The incubation period lasts 53 days. Then the chicks are fattened up with a regurgitated fishy mush. Sometimes the parents return to the same burrow for up to 17 years in a row. The sea birds circle above the surf, swirling clouds like swarms of bees obscuring water and sky, their screams sounding like babies’ cries. At twilight they return en masse to the land. A flutter of hectic wings, a crash through the tree tops, and with a heavy thump they land all together on the island.
In the early part of the year, the antipodean autumn, the “Stewart Island Explorer“ brings containers full of tinned food, kerosene, building material and bedding to the Titi Islands. From the beginning of March, when the muttonbird chicks are fat and plump but still flightless, the muttonbirders come ashore. Off season, no one is allowed to land. The birding starts on the 1st of April. In middle to late May, the birders leave the islands again until next year. On board their boats, dinghies, helicopters and catamarans they carry hundreds of thousands of salted muttonbirds; the exact number is guarded like a state secret. Muttonbird is a traditional Maori food and an unusual delicacy. The dark meat tastes gamey, fishy and oily after it has been cooked for more than an hour. It’s an acquired taste, savoured by its fans, but the smell is penetrating and strong, and reminiscent of mutton - hence the name. There is much paradoxical about the muttonbird. It lives in burrows like a rabbit but is sold by fishmongers. The Maori battalions in the Second World War were sent barrels full of muttonbirds. When these fell into the hands of the German Afrika Korps, the rumour spread that the British must be eating seagulls. The indigenous delicacy is not cheap, even though it can be found nowadays, vacuum-packed, in New Zealand supermarkets. Some muttonbirder families make enough money in two months to support themselves for the rest of the year. A lot of the profits go back into the industry to buy and maintain helicopters and boats. This legal indigenous food gathering has become a successful business for some. Two years ago, muttonbirder Mhari Baty received the “Maori Women’s Business Award“ because her family business had created new jobs - and this with only two months’ income a year. The muttonbirders are a tight-knit group of just a few hundred people, as secretive as a sect. No journalist or outsider normally gets access to their world. For a long time, scientists and birdwatchers tried in vain to obtain permission to observe the sooty shearwater around its nesting places. In the end, however, the muttonbirders’ suspicion gave way to concern about the future of the natural food source. The Maori wanted to know whether the population of the seabirds was diminishing and if their harvesting - which had been done for centuries in harmony with nature - was being affected by environmental factors. This is how the University of Otago in Dunedin started a unique cooperation 11 years ago. Their project Kia Mau Te Titi Mo Ake Tonu Atu (Keep The Titi Forever) reports directly to the Rakiura Maori. The directors of the research, who receive the funding, are part of the tribe. It’s something of a tightrope walk, with western science meeting the mythology of hunter- gatherers. To be able to take measurements and samples or ring the animals, the zoologists have to ask for permission - every field trip is an honour granted by the island’s beneficial owners.
The “Titi Times“ is published twice a year by the university’s Titi Project. It contains the latest news and findings, not to move through the terrain, with its steep slopes and broken-off branches, and the ground full of holes and burrows. You smell the birds before you see them - the colonies have an intense reek. Pieces of down around the entrance of the burrow show it is inhabited by a chick. The prey is tracked down in a way that seems archaic. “It feels like I become part of the earth where the chicks are hiding,“ says Dean. He lies on the moist peaty ground, one arm extended into the burrow, and pokes around in the dark hole, waiting for a telltale movement at the other end. It’s a bit like fishing, only that he uses a wire loop instead of a hook to pull up his catch. Death comes with a bite into the downy skull, which cracks and tastes of warm blood. Dean spits out the feathers. “If you bite too strongly, you get the eyeballs into your mouth.“ When his sons saw the blood trickling down their father’s chin for the first time, they were shocked. Then they finally tried it out themselves. And loved it.
Toward the end of the season, the chicks come out of their burrows at night to shake off their down in the rain and get ready for their first flight. That’s when the men wait with torches and pick the chicks from the ground like fallen apples. Some of the stronger men crush the birds’ heads with their hands or over the blade of a small axe. Seasoned muttonbirders have callused knuckles from the thousands of birds they have killed. “Some of the new guys just throw the chicks against a tree trunk,“ says Dean. Idiots like that get sent off the island immediately. The rules are strict andself-regulating - if a bird is too small, it is put back in the burrow. The punishment for catching an adult bird is having to eat it; the unpalatable flesh is sinewy and tough. As in a fallow farming system, certain birding areas become tapu (forbidden) in rotation, giving the bird only for ornithologists but specifically for the Maori families. The Rakiura Titi Islands Administering Body has the final say over all the information that is published externally, in order to protect indigenous intellectual property from manipulation and interference. No-one connected to Stewart Island seems keen on having muttonbirding publicly discussed in political or ecological terms. There is already enough trouble as it is, even without animal rights activists voicing their concerns, or the rest of New Zealand asking politically incorrect questions - such as why the hunters have refused to let their practices be inspecte too closely when muttonbirding has long been a commercial operation rather than subsistence hunting.
When Dean Tiemi Te Au’s dad died, the son didn’t shed a tear. He shovelled dirt on to the coffin and said, “Just put him in the hole“.Dean was sick of his father not doing anything about his interest in the Muttonbird Islands and his lost whakapapa. Soon afterwards, the fatherless son left Bluff at the southern tip of the South Island in a catamaran. Huge swarms of titi accompanied him on that autumn day. When one of the birds spotted a fish, thousands of them dived into the water. The sight of Taukihepa (Big South Cape Island) made Dean’s heart race. This was the island he had heard so much about when he was a kid. The island has no wharf or quay, and landing an inflatable dinghy is a dangerous manoeuvre. When Dean finally climbed onto the slippery rocks and set foot on the islands, he cried the tears that he had held back at his father’s funeral. “My dad was there, all around me. And all the ancestors.“ He felt that he had come home.
The happiness didn’t last long. In Murderers Cove, where he landed, an angry Maori chief had once killed a whaler’s crew in retaliation for atrocious crimes against local indigenous people. When Dean arrived, things didn’t look too peaceful either. Some of the old muttonbirders shouted at him: “What do you want here? If you come to stay, we’ll burn down your hut!“ It looked as if Dean would have to bury his dream of the mystery islands forever, like his father. But Dean Tiemi Te Au has rebellious genes in him. Te Wae Wae, his great-great-great-grandfather, had refused to sign over his land to the British for a few muskets. In the Maori belief system, no man owns any land that he can just sell off - it would be like selling pieces of the sky or the ocean. As an ariki, you are only the caretaker of this earth. “I am a rebel,“ says Dean. “I don’t want my children to go through this. That’s why I am fighting.“ The next year, he stood in front of the elders of his tribe and demanded his right to go birding. He was nervous but felt strong: “The ancestors are on my side,“ he says. There was a lot of heated argument. But Dean’s stubbornness and his pedigree finally won. He got permission to go muttonbirding. The island of Taukihepa is divided into 22 birding areas. Dean was given the largest territory because of his ariki bloodlines. “It’s the ‚palace’, the prime real estate. Everyone knows that the best birds are there.“ Finally he was receiving the honour and respect that a Te Au deserves. A month later, a helicopter dropped two kitset sheds on Taukihepa. Dean cut his name with a spade into the earth, just as the other birders do every year. Then he learned from one of his cousins how to catch titi.
The procedure, often conducted in pouring rain, requires gumboots, gloves, colonies the chance to regenerate. Muttonbirding is hard, exhausting work. The dead birds are strung on flax or leather and carried around the shoulder like a bag. Before being gutted, they are cleaned, plucked and covered with warm wax to pull out the remaining pinfeathers. The innards are removed - the oil from the stomach is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Salted and oiled, the birds are layered into plastic buckets, or sometimes, even today, into traditional kelp bags. Up to 15 muttonbirds fit into the stretched algae, each weighing around 850 grams. The salt in the kelp preserves the meat for as long as four years. But in the age of freezers, this natural method of preserving food is slowly dying out. Pucking and waxing under a kerosene light can take hours. One person can do about a hundred birds a night. The whiskey flows, someone sings a tune, and stories are told of wars, spirits and gods.
Life on the islands is like stepping back in time. There is no running water and often no electricity. Food supplies run out quickly. Some families live on cabbage and muttonbirds for weeks. The birds taste best freshly cooked over an open fire, when the grease runs down your chin and there is nothing around you but wind, sea and trees. Traces of history can be found everywhere. In the undergrowth behind Dean’s shed lies a cauldron, left there by to him. “Going to the island is the best holiday ever for my sons,“ says Dean. “They do exactly what their ancestors have been doing for hundreds of years. Without the fighting and the jealousy it’s the most beautiful place in the world.“ But his children are currently not allowed to go to Taukihepa; their mother has decided it’s too dangerous. Three years ago, Dean was assaulted there with an iron bar. The scar on his forehead is still visible. The fight erupted over who has the right to go birding in the ‚palace’ which was assigned to Dean. The year after, Dean invited photographer Bruce Connew and his wife to the island - without a permit from the Titi committee. Both were ordered off the island by other muttonbirders after only 39 hours. Dean and his two boys left the island in protest at his guests’ expulsion. When the five finally took off in a helicopter, the last thing they saw was an angry muttonbirder swinging his machete and telling them to “f--- off“. Back at the airport, an officer from the Department of Conservation was already waiting for them. When Connew wanted to have an exhibition of his muttonbird photos last year, pressure was put on the public gallery. The gallery manager, Maori himself, avoided the conflict by dropping the project. It was later shown at other galleries, however. Dean had his caretaker post revoked. Nobody around Bluff would even rent him a boat any more. The tribe ostracised him, his family put him out in the cold. He was on his own, without a place to call home, lonely and free as a bird. And with the whole muttonbirding community against him. “It had nothing to do with Bruce’s photos“, states Dean. “They hate me because I demand my rights. I want truth and justice.“ What Dean Tiemi Te Au is up against is the fact that not every muttonbirder has proven their whakapapa in the Maori Land Court, meaning they haven’t proven themselves to be the legitimate beneficial owners of the islands. Which means that some people might have fiddled with their family trees to suit their interests - just as someone had obviously done with the Te Aus’, some generations before. “It’s a family business. They have a monopoly which they don’t want to give up,“ says Dean. “They don’t want the legitimate owners to come back. It started already in the 19th century. But now the ariki are making a comeback.“
Regardless of whether it’s a legal issue or a family feud, the ancient tradition has already suffered in times of helicopters and supermarkets. “In the old days, people worked together and only took as many birds as they could handle directly,“ Dean says. “Now it’s all about money, money, money.“ These days, a lot of families use plucking machines to speed up the process - but not Dean. There is another development which could prove significant for traditionalists and business people alike. The scientists in Dunedin have proven that the sooty shearwater numbers are dwindling by one to two percent each year. The annual bird hunt seems to be the least of the threats to the muttonbird. A much greater danger is the massive ship rats who prey on the chicks - 600 rats were trapped last year on Taukihepa alone. Once all the factors that threaten the bird’s migration, reproduction or feeding cycle, including climate change, gill nets and oil spills, are fed into the Titi project’s computer program, it will come up with a birding quota that guarantees the continuity of the harvest without the threat of extinction. The idea is to protect the birds and the birding for future generations. The result is sustainable resource management through titi technology. Not surprisingly, the first Maori PhD student in zoology is a muttonbirder. Dean Tiemi Te Au has declared war on those who, in his view, shouldn’t be on the islands: “If we ensure that only those people go birding who have established their right to do so in the Maori Land Court, then no one can take it away from us again.“ He has made up with his family, who now support him in his mission. Early next year, he will show up at the Rakiura meeting house. He will challenge the tribe, in the old style - which means violence, if necessary. His great-great-great-grandfather wouldn’t have done it any other way. As well as his black belt in martial arts, Dean believes he will have another kind of protection. “In Maoridom, one of the most serious crimes is to claim someone’s lineage,“ he says. “These things will come back to them. The ancestors will sort it out. We call it a Maori bullet.“ Once the fight is over and the blood has dried, Dean Tiemi Te Au will return to his palace of peat, trees, two sheds and a sky. Like every true muttonbirder, he knows the longing that descends shortly after leaving the island. The next time he goes, he will take his newborn baby with him, so that the youngest descendant of chief Te Wae Wae will experience his island from his earliest days. For Dean, what happens there is so much bigger than all the problems and hassle. “It’s something spiritual,“ he says. “Only as a muttonbirder are you part of it.“ The young sea birds who leave their burrows at night see nothing but the starry sky above them in the pitch dark. The constellations tell them where their journey will go. At the end of May, when the last birders board their boats to go back to the mainland, millions of muttonbirds take off into the sky, circle one last time above the islands, and then head north.