Wapiti in New Zealand

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Safari Park Wapiti
wapiti bull

History: The first wapiti (Cervus elaphus nelsonii) to be successfully established in NZ were of the Rocky Mountain race that were released in George Sound in 1905. At the time of their importation and release, sportsmen believed that the herd would remain pure because of its isolated location in the mountains of Fiordland. No other game animals were to be successfully introduced into that part of south-west New Zealand except for some moose which were liberated in Dusky Sound in 1910. Keen New Zealand hunters have traditionally associated the rugged country of Fiordland with the mighty wapiti. Unfortunately, because of the interbreeding of wapiti with red deer, that association is less meaningful today. Gone is the "big, old, thick-necked, dark-maned, wonder-horned, tawny hided, beer-horse-built bugler of a bull-elk" as described by Ernest Hemingway in "Green Hills of Africa".

Current up to date information about the Rocky Mountain Elk in their homeland can be found at Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

The first attempts by New Zealand hunters to keep the wapiti herd pure were made by the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association (NZDA) in the early 1960s. The NZDA believed that if they could understand the process of red deer immigration into Fiordland they would be better able to block the movement of these red deer. A dedicated NZDA member developed a tranquillizer gun which was used to sedate deer (which were then collared) in eastern Fiordland. Unfortunately, the many challenges confronting this project lead to its demise and red deer have continued to dilute the genetics of the wapiti herd. The animals that now occupy the Fiordland wapiti country are a cross between red deer and the original Rocky Mountain race of wapiti. A group of hard working and dedicated enthusiasts have tried to perpetuate the wapiti hunting tradition in New Zealand. In an attempt to keep the original herd alive, a small number of wild animals were airlifted out of Fiordland by helicopter. Today a small herd of about 50 wapiti, descended from these animals, is maintained as a "Crown Herd" on a farm near Te Anau.

Today: But all is not lost. In 1993 the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation (FWF) was established with the objective of protecting the Fiordland herd which is the only wild free range herd of wapiti in the southern hemisphere. The FWF now works in partnership with the Department of Conservation (DOC) in the management of the existing herd. The partnership has two main ongoing projects. One is the management of 25 balloted hunting blocks and the other is the improvement of the wapiti herd by removal of red deer and hybrid animals. To date nearly 5000 red deer and hybrids have been removed mainly by commercial helicopter culls.

Wapiti Hunting Today: The hunting of wapiti trophies on public land in Fiordland is only possible through the ballot system managed by the FWF and DOC. Each of the 25 balloted blocks is available for occupation by 6 hunters, three times (for 10 days) over the wapiti rut (bugle). Which means that a total of 450 hunters can hunt for a wapiti trophy each year over three 10 day periods between 19th March and 17th April. Ballot papers are usually available from the start of August until mid-September in the year preceding the next wapiti bugle.

While today's herd may never produce antlers like the 64 1/2 inch (164 cm) cast antler found near Henry Saddle in 1938, the trophies coming out of Fiordland are getting measurably better. Today animals can be seen with wapiti characteristics but at best these animals would have 50%-60% wapiti blood. It is a credit to dedicated FWF members and DOC that the New Zealand wapiti hunting tradition is undergoing an unlikely rebirth in the face of huge odds.


Best NZ Wapiti Head   Douglas Score 47434 taken in 1933.

Rut   April


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For more information e-mail   Steuart   of NZ Hunting Info Ltd