The story behind DOC’s exclusive three-part miniseries about saving tokoeka kiwi in Fiordland.
By Jayne Ramage
I showed my colleague Belle the article I saw on the Spinoff about the people who filmed Tracked, a rugged reality show.
“This is pretty much what I was going to write about you filming in Fiordland,” I tell her.
Belle looks at the picture of two extremely serious looking people wearing all-black fatigues and ski masks. “They look like they’re off to rob the trees,” she says.
When Belle took a camera into some of the country’s most difficult terrain, she wore striped leggings and a DOC jacket. But she was doing pretty much the same thing as Tracked’s team of videographers—albeit, differently dressed.
And she was filming the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries, a miniseries about kiwi survival.
“Maybe I should have worn a robber mask?” Belle suggests.
“Balaclava,” I say.
“Yeah. Next time.”
Massive shoutout to the Tracked videographers though, because not many people know how challenging it is to film in the rugged and remote natural landscapes of Aotearoa. The Tracked team do, and so does Belle Gwilliam.
She’s an expert in striped leggings.
When it comes to filming in nature, there are multiple factors which might ruin your best laid plans. My team call these ‘potential mess up factors’, although sometimes we swap ‘mess’ for something more alliterative.
1) Weather. Only thing worse than climbing vertical hills is climbing them while you’re slowly turning into a human icicle
2) Nature knows no storyboard. You can’t guarantee that critters will do what you want them to. You can plan for a close up of a kiwi, but you might not get a close up of a kiwi
3) Predation. The sad reality is so many of our precious species are in dire straits, vis-à-vis survival, and seeing it first-hand isn’t fun
In Fiordland, our rangers were worried because Southern Fiordland tokoeka chicks were all dying and the population was in big trouble. People need to know what’s happening.
Problem is, you can’t just wander into remote Fiordland and take a gander.
It’s too far away.
It’s also dense.
And just when you think that’s all quite enough to contend with, have a gander at how steep it is:
If you’ve read our kiwi blogs, you follow our social media, or you’ve watched some TV about conservation in Aotearoa before, you might recognise our main character, Tim Raemaekers, a ranger based in Te Anau, Fiordland.
(I say character, but Tim’s only a character in the hard-case sense. He’s very real, as are all of our stars: Chris Dodd (Doddy), Monty Williams and a handful of others who feature in this series too).
Because no one except a pro has any business in this terrain, Belle went in with a camera to capture everything she could.
“Over three years, the Fiordland team monitored kiwi nests in Shy Lake and thirty-four chicks were hatched,” Belle says, when I talk her into letting me interview her. “Guess how many died?”
I don’t have to guess, I know, but the stat is so shocking, we repeat it any chance we get.
“All thirty-four died,” Belle answers her own question. “Most died because of stoats.”
Tim and the Fiordland rangers wrote a series of blogs about this period. My favourite chick, Waimarie, was born in 2017. She fit in a ranger’s hand! She weighed 225 g, a tenth of the size of the adult dad kiwi. I pinned this picture up on my desk and people always mentioned it when they stopped by.
But when rangers when back to measure Waimarie’s growth, they didn’t find a healthy, live little chick. They found her remains.
At approximately 20 days old, Waimarie was eaten by stoats.
To be perfectly honest, I still tear up when I look at the photos, or read the blog from the day she was discovered (content warning, a photo of her remains are included in this linked blog). But I do sometimes go back and read it. It reminds me why DOC do what we do.
As for the how, I asked Belle.
“I did an annual trip once a year [to Fiordland] for the last three years, and I followed these rangers doing their day-to-day field work,” she says. “I helicoptered out to the middle of nowhere with them and we tramped from mountain to mountain looking for kiwi.”
It sounds hard. Really hard.
Or harder? Because Belle was a one-person crew for most of it.
When I got my first look at her raw footage, I asked how on earth she managed to climb all the vertical hills the rangers were, with camera equipment, with sound gear, with misc other gear.
“That was definitely the most physically challenging part of the whole situation. First of all, the rangers are mountain goats.”
(Disclaimer: we’re not a massive fan of wild goats—they damage habitats and native plants. But that’s a separate thing).
“[The rangers] are fast and they do this about every second week, so they’re very used to this training. This terrain is like an Expert level Great Walk. Not even that—it’s a god-tier Great Walk. And I had a lot of heavy camera equipment.”
Belle tells me about the rangers’ way of supporting her, which I think is so classically New Zealand.
“I noticed they wouldn’t say that they thought that I need a break—and sometimes I clearly needed a break, I was visibly sweating—but they would pretend for my sake that they were tired and needed a break. They’d start puffing out of nowhere, being like, ‘ooh, yeah, I could really do with a break!’ And I know they could have kept going.”
I mention that I think Belle is underselling herself a little bit, because we’re safety-conscious and wouldn’t send someone out to remote Fiordland if they didn’t have the fitness to do it.
Belle clarifies that there’s fitness, and then there’s hill fitness, and then there’s Fiordland hill fitness.
“I prepared—or I thought I did—but the first trip was still a shock. On my third and final trip, I needed more hands and my colleague Lucy came down with me. She had a similar experience. She does a lot of hiking and still found this to be a whole new level of hard.”
The rangers and Belle (plus Lucy on the last trip) helicopter into Shy Lake, where the monitoring is taking place, but Tim estimates that walking it would take 2 weeks from the end of the road. And that estimate is in Tim-time, which is screeds faster than anyone else.
Then, when you’re actually in Shy Lake, the team were tramping for seven hours a day.
“Many parts don’t have tracks, you have to go through the bush to find the nests,” Belle says. “Kiwi don’t stick to a track, so you can’t either.”
I’ve heard that about them. It’s supremely inconsiderate.
Belle describes this kind of hike as ‘gnarly’ and I describe as ‘horrific’—although we both agree the place is magical. Remote Fiordland is a supremely beautiful landscape, unique to Aotearoa.
Watching the team climbing nearly vertical hills in this series, you’d assume the terrain and weather would be the hardest part of making it.
“It’s the emotional investment. That’s the hardest bit. All the chicks were dying, that’s why we did an aerial 1080 operation to reduce predator numbers. After this operation, survival increased by 20% in the first two years.”
When I messaged Tim about this, he explained that the five chicks that survived in the first two years after the 1080 operation are representative of lots more across the predator control area, which was much bigger than the Shy Lake study site. He said these five chicks are indicative of several hundred, at least.
This kind of increase is remarkable.
Belle, in particular, is effusive. “Shy Lake had five chicks! We went from none in this study area, to five! It was amazing.”
There’s a but coming, though. The but was in the air.
“But the effects of one operation can’t last forever,” Belle says. “Reinvasion came, and it came quick. The rangers were really affected. Getting the call from Tim saying that a stoat came back into the nests and we lost more new chicks was devastating.”
It might just be because I’m a crier, but I think it would be very hard to watch the third and final episode in the series—the One With the Reinvasion—and not cry.
Tim says, “After the effects of 1080 on the predator population have worn off, we’re sadly back to zero survival. But we’ve just conducted another operation in the area, hoping to build on the success of the first.”
The key factor to understand about kiwi survival is breeding speeds. Kiwi are slow. They have usually one chick a year, and two goes at it, max. They only usually try a second time if the first isn’t successful.
Stoats, meanwhile, are prolific duplicators and that’s putting it kindly.
For Belle, this is the fact from the documentary that has made the biggest impact on her.
“I learned that stoats can have up to 14 kits in one litter. Then the female kits are impregnated by a male stoat, usually the father from birth. And because they’re just permanently, incestuously pregnant, they can have loads and loads of baby stoats in one year. Meanwhile kiwi are doing one chick per pair, per year. If they’re lucky.”
I’m still reeling from this information when Belle lays out the bottom line.
“Numbers wise, kiwi don’t have a chance of survival without intervention.”
That’s why we made the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries.
Belle has written, directed and led the editing of this series. I helped with story and production, and the bigger DOC team has pitched in on a million other bits and pieces. We made this pretty much all in-house, spending as little as possible—a bit on travel, a bit on gear. It took us three years because we did it around all the other work we do, (and this field work is at the mercy of weather windows), but we knew this story was important to capture.
We can tell people the facts as much as we like—and we will, it’s important—but seeing it, on the ground with your own eyes (or as close as we can take you) is something else.
Watch the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries now on our YouTube. There are three episodes, each 8-12 minutes, and there’s no nature docco quite like it. It’s David Attenborough meets Country Calendar meets a bit of Bear Grylls.
It’s a must watch.
To learn more about saving the Southern Fiordland tokoeka kiwi, watch the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries on the DOC YouTube.