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|Other name(s)||kaurehe, Māori otter, New Zealand otter, South Island otter, waitoreki, waitorete|
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Waitoreke also commonly referred to as the South Island Otter is an otter/beaver-like creature in New Zealand folklore. In its rare inferred sightings it is usually described as a small otter-like animal that lives in the South Island of New Zealand. There are many theories on the waitoreke's true identity, such as it being an otter, beaver or pinniped. New Zealand's only scientifically recognized native land mammals are bats.
The origin of the name "waitoreke" is not well documented; it may have been an invention. It does not occur in Tregear's fairly comprehensive Māori dictionary of 1891, and was said to be "ungrammatical" by leading Māori anthropologist Te Rangi Hīroa.
Since European settlement (late 18th century onwards) the animal has also been referred to as the "New Zealand otter", "Māori otter", "New Zealand beaver", "New Zealand muskrat" and "New Zealand platypus" based on various accounts and theories.
The waitoreke is usually described as a small otter-like creature sometimes as big as a cat. It is described as having brownish fur and short legs. The sightings usually place the creature near or in the water on the South Island of New Zealand. Its fur is described as being short like that of an otter.
Very little physical evidence proving the existence of the waitoreke exists. Julius von Haast is reported to have obtained a waitoreke pelt in 1868. The fur was brown, with white spots, and the toes lacked webbing. This is inconclusive evidence; the pelt seems to have resembled a quoll's. The common brushtail possum was successfully introduced in 1858 and is now a widespread pest, whereas the introduction of the common ringtail possum ultimately failed. Both animals are unspotted. It is possible there was an attempt to introduce quolls at the same time as the attempts with possums, as quolls were often considered a type of possum at the time; but these attempted founding populations died off soon after.
Evidence for the existence of the waitoreke is mainly based on sporadic accounts of an "unidentified amphibious animal" in the country's South Island spanning well over 200 years. Areas vicinity to Otautau had more records. Some of the more infamous accounts are dubious and/or incongruous - but a significant number of descriptions (particularly from the late 19th century onwards) share a striking similarity to each other and to species known to exist outside New Zealand. The Māori people said that in old times they used to keep waitoreke as pets (Mareš, 1997).
Some of the most notable early (claimed) accounts come from pre-20th-century explorers/naturalists:
- Captain James Cook - Dusky Sound - 1772. Georg Forster, one of the biologists on board, doubted the observation of a quadruped in his report (A Voyage Round the World).
- Walter Mantell - various - first half of the 19th century(?), Temuka location: "He informed me that the length of the animal is about two feet from the point of the nose to the root of the tail; the fur grisly brown, thick short legs, bushy tail, head between that of a dog and a cat, lives in holes, the food of the land kind is lizards, of the amphibious kind, fish - does not lay eggs." Recorded in an interview with "Tarawhatta" (=? Arawhata) of the "Ngatomamoes" (= Kāti mamoe lineages of the Ngāi Tahu). The date is variously given as 1838 or 1848 in secondary sources.
- Reverend Richard Taylor - various - first half of the 19th century and perhaps earlier. In his 1855 book Te Ika a Maui.[verification needed]
- Julius von Haast - various - 19th century. As quoted in Alfred Brehm, Brehms Tierleben, chapter Monotremes: "Another interesting creatures among the most primitive mammals are the only indigenous New Zealand mammal, waitoteke (sic), an otter-like animal which has been seen several times, once from such a short distance that it was hit with a whip, but then it disappeared in the water with a very brittle sound. Jul. v. Haast saw its tracks in the snow. Yet no-one was able to catch the animal so far. It is thought that this mammal is more primitive than Monotremes and will put some new light upon the ascent of the class which ends with the Man." As quoted in Hochstetter's New Zealand: "My friend Haast wrote me about vaitoteke (sic) on June 6, 1861: ´3500 feet above the sea level I found, on the upper part of Ashburton river (South Island, Canterbury province), in a part of the country which no man has ever visited before me, its tracks. These are similar to those of an otter, only a bit smaller. However, the animal itself was observed by two gentlemen who own a sheep farm near Ashburton 2100 feet above sea level. They described the animal as being dark brown, the size of a big rabbit. When hit with a whip, it made a whistle-like sound and disappeared in the water.´"
Later accounts come from a variety of settlers, farmers, trampers, hunters, tourists and scientists throughout the 20th century, for example, Philip Houghton in the vicinity of Martins Bay. Many of these sightings were assessed in a paper on the subject of the waitoreke by G.A. Pollock in 1974 which led to a search of the area around lakes Waihola and Waipori in Otago during the 1980s.
- McLintock, Alexander Hare; Austin Graham Bagnall, M. A.; Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "ANIMALS, MYTHICAL". An encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, 1966. Retrieved 23 July 2021.
- Lloyd Esler (30 November 2017). "Whale species discovery at Mason Bay, 1933". The Southland Times. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
- 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
- "...all the witnesses agreed that it was “about the size of a cat, with short legs, and of a mouse colour.” ..."
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15777/15777-8.txt "For three or four days after we arrived in Pickersgill harbour, and as we were clearing the woods to set up our tents, &c. a four-footed animal was seen by three or four of our people; but as no two gave the same description of it, I cannot say of what kind it is. All, however, agreed, that it was about the size of a cat, with short legs, and of a mouse colour. One of the seamen, and he who had the best view of it, said it had a bushy tail, and was the most like a jackall of any animal he knew. The most probable conjecture is, that it is of a new species. Be this as it may, we are now certain that this country is not so destitute of quadrupeds as was once thought.", James Cook, "A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World", Volume 1
- Forster, George (1777). A Voyage Round the World, in His Brittanic Majesty's Sloop, Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the Years 1972, 3, 4, 5. Vol. 1. London: B. White. p. 602. pp. 155–156:
We were surprised to see the young black dog in the boat with them, which ran away from us [...]. Though this animal had been in the woods during a fortnight, yet it was by no means famished, but on the contrary looked well fed [...] We may from hence conclude, that as there is abundance of food for carnivorous animals in New Zealand, they would probably be very numerous if they existed there at all, especially if they were endowed with any degree of sagacity, like the fox, or cat tribes. In that case they could not have escaped the notice of our numerous parties, nor of the natives, and the latter would certainly have preserved their furs, as a valuable article of dress in their moist and raw climate, for want of which they now wear the skins of dogs and of birds. The question, whether New Zealand contained any wild quadrupeds, had engaged our attention from our first arrival there. One of our people, strongly persuaded that so great a country could not fail of possessing new and unknown animals, had already twice reported that he had seen a brown animal, something less than a jackal or little fox, about the dawn of morning, sitting on a stump of a tree near our tents, and running off at his approach. But as this circumstance has never been confirmed by any subsequent testimony, nothing is more probable than that the want of day-light had deceived him, and that he had either observed one of the numerous wood-hens, which are brown, and creep through the bushes very frequently; or that one of our cats, on the watch for little birds, had been mistaken for a new quadruped.
- Houghton, Philip (1974), Hidden Water, Auckland, London, Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, pp. 142–146
- Pollack, G.A. (1974). "The South Island Otter – An Addendum" (PDF). Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society. 21: 57–61. Retrieved 4 July 2019.