A New Zealand businessman and conservationist has developed a solution for helping the critically endangered weka, or Maori hen: turn them into the next high-end delicacy by farming them for food.
Roger Beattie is a New Zealand wildlife magnate. He runs several enterprises: a kelp farm, an organic sheep farm, and a reserve for weka, or Maori hen. Considering his environmental pedigree after spending 14 years working in conservation, he's the last person you'd expect to be encouraging people to eat New Zealand's famous, beloved, and endangered native birds.
Native birds like the weka are in decline due to predation in the wild. Beattie is vocal about the fact that endangered native birds need to be farmed for consumption to help sustain the animal's populations. He believes there is a huge potential market for the meat due to its taboo nature, and tourists and exotic food lovers will pay the high prices to make it sustainable. It's probably not going to blow any minds that this emphatic farmer isn't best mates with the New Zealand's Department of Conservation.
I had a chance to discuss eating New Zealand's endangered species with Beattie and the red tape he has to navigate in order to bring them to our plates.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Roger. You've said that bird species like kiwi, protected by the Department of Conservation, could potentially be farmed and marketed as premium food delicacies. But I believe you've had a lot of resistance from the DOC on this. Roger Beattie: For some reason, some species can be farmed and others can't. They state, you can't breed these species because you don't have the expertise to keep the genetics pure. It's patronizing. Local farmers are living examples of people that understand genetics. Sheep aren't an endangered species—kiwi are.
Obviously, you don't see eye-to-eye with the DOC. On some things I don't and on some things I do. We have similar objectives, but a different delivery. For their critical endangered species work, DOC have the resources and expertise that can save them. Still, DOC is self-serving, they're the "Department of Kill-Save" because they kill one species to save another. DOC's people in the field should take over the bureaucrats' job; they have more passion for actual conservation.
How do you think we should be protecting endangered species? We need to change the legislation. We wonder why we're losing 6 percent of our kiwi population per year. The Department is right in identifying the problem, but have the wrong solutions. A market solution is necessary. If private individuals want to do conservationist things, there should be no impediment. We farm native paua, plenty of people are propagating native trees—but certain native species can't be farmed. No species that have ever been farmed have ever died out. Since man has been in New Zealand, we've lost 44 bird species because they were protected. If you've got the choice between something being protected and dying, and something being farmed and thriving, that's not much of a choice.
What species do you want to farm first? In terms of sustainable farming, you have to have a species that is friendly and tasty. What I do know about is weka. Weka grow fast, they can be farmed with only a relatively small amount of capital, they eat a variety of food, and are cheap to grow and keep. We've bred hundreds of them and given them away. You're not allowed to sell them without a permit. You'd end up in jail.
Isn't there some irony in saving an endangered species to turn it into a food source? If someone wants to breed weka up in a reserve, release them into the wild, or sell byproducts to the market, that's fine. I see no inconsistency in farming birds or in traditional sheep-farming. We sell our Pitt Island sheep for wool, horns, and meat.
Why do you think there is a taboo around eating our native species? It's a modern thing. Maori used to eat all of the species we have. DOC has cultivated this myth around our bird species. We eat plenty of native birds! Mutton birds, duck, pukeko. What's the difference between duck and weka?
But is farming just a Band-Aid to the conservation issue? You're breeding in confinement rather than cultivating wild populations. If you've got critically endangered species, which weka are, would it not be better to farm them in semi-confinement, and when the numbers get up, people have the choice of releasing them into the wild? In time, we will have predator management control, and traps for eradicating stoats, weasels, rats, ferrets and possums.
How does weka taste? Weka are great! A blend of lamb and chicken, but not greasy like a mutton bird. There's no reason wealthy tourists could pay $100 a bird on the menu. We pay good money for crayfish. Why shouldn't we pay good money for birds? The key to sustainably manage bird populations, is to pick one, and that is weka. They're easy. We give them water and food for them and let them do their thing. Really, compared to weka, kiwi are dumb. Kiwi don't have our psyche—weka are cheeky, vivacious, outgoing. We should be called weka, not kiwi!
Thanks for speaking with me, Roger.