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Auckland Island Pigs Rescue

A Rare Breeds Society Project

Map of New Zealand showing the position of the Auckland Islands.

      The Auckland Islands are a group of Subantarctic islands which lie some 320 kilometres south of New Zealand – the largest being Auckland Island itself. The islands were discovered in 1806 and soon received visits from sealing parties with whalers following not long after.   As a result of these visits there were a number of shipwrecks in the area, and pigs, goats, sheep and rabbits were released on the various islands to provide food for shipwrecked sailors.

      Pigs were originally introduced onto Auckland Island in 1807 by Captain Abraham Bristow of the Sarah in 1807 – and they thrived. They were reported as numerous in 1840 when Sir James Clark Ross visited during the Erebus and Terror expedition to Antarctica. However, Ross liberated more pigs off his own ships onto the island. Where he obtained these has not been established but he sailed for the Auckland Islands from Hobart, Tasmania.

Two members of the Auckland Island rescue team.  (Photo by Dave Matheson.)
Two members of the Auckland Island rescue team   (Photo by Dave Matheson)

      Maoris who migrated to the island from the Chathams in 1842 also brought pigs with them. These were almost certainly of New Zealand stock. We can probably assume that both these later groups of animals interbred with the descendants of Bristow's liberation. Many pigs were seen on the island by Charles Enderby in 1850, and they hunted by the survivors of the wreck of the General Grant in 1866.

      There was still concern for the welfare of castaways in the latter half of the nineteenth century and more pigs were released onto Auckland Island in the 1890s, including some by Captain Bollons of the Government Supply Ship, Hinemoa. These almost certainly came from New Zealand, the Hinemoa's home base, but whether they were wild, or domesticated and of English stock (by that time available in New Zealand), is unknown.

      By the end of the nineteenth century a thriving population of pigs of mixed blood from successive liberations over the preceding hundred years existed on Auckland Island; genetically they all derived from relatively early (but varied) stock by today’s standards.

      From the time of the last release the pig population on Auckland Island remained isolated for the next hundred or so years.

      By the last decades of the twentieth century, the Department of Conservation (DoC) resolved to eradicate all introduced mammals from the Auckland Islands. As early as 1840, Joseph Hooker, a botanist with Ross, had noted that pigs on the island were consuming native vegetation, and in 1909 Edgar Waite observed that not only was the plant life suffering but the pigs were also destroying the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds.

      During the 1980s and 90s the Rare Breeds Conservation Society began removing representative animals of wild populations including rabbits and cattle from the Auckland Islands (See » Enderby Island Cattle and » Enderby Island Rabbits), and in January 1999 it was the turn of the pigs.

      The Subantarctic expedition, coordinated by Michael Willis of the Canterbury Section of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand, was funded by a Lotteries Grant, a vessel Sea Surveyor and crew were made available, and contributions from Television New Zealand (which provided a film crew), as well as donations from individuals, supported the project.

Trussed Auckland Island pig (Photo by Dave Matheson)
Trussed Auckland Island pig
(Photo by Dave Matheson)

      The team were all volunteers and included veterinarian Dr Dave Matheson, and the handlers of six well-trained dogs, which were to prove to be the principal capture mechanism when equipped with transmitting collars, although snares, nets, and tranquillising equipment were also taken.

      There were the usual difficulties – as well as negotiations with both DoC and MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) and the establishment of quarantine quarters in Invercargill. As Michael Willis said, “It’s easier to get to Antarctica than to go to the Auckland Islands!”

      The expedition left on 12 January 1999 and returned to Bluff Harbour on 23 January with a total of seventeen pigs, including several pregnant sows. The number of pigs on the island turned out to be lower than expected. Forest cover was dense and the only really successful method of capture was to use the dogs to find and hold animals until members of the party arrived to tie their feet and jaws securely. The captured pigs were carried back to base camp where they were released into cages. Inevitably there were some injuries (not always to the pigs!) but all the captured animals survived and recovered well.

      The Auckland Island pigs proved somewhat different from the wild pigs of mainland New Zealand. They neither squealed nor bailed when hunted – which complicated matters. They settled well into captivity (most were starting to think about eating within 24 hours) and were very compatible one to the other.

      Three of the seventeen captured were black and tan, the remainder all black, although one or two had indications of white around the feet such as is seen in Berkshires (See » Berkshire Pigs). Most were of a fairly typical wild pig type, but smaller, with rather longer and narrower heads and noses than is usual, and with long and noticeably straight tails. Their quarantine handlers also described them as “very athletic.” Several months after their arrival in lnvercargill all the pigs were thriving and a number of litters totalling more than forty piglets had been produced. Altogether a most successful recovery operation.

   See also:
» Auckland Pigs breed page
» Rare Breeds Society Projects
» Southland Heritage Breeds Charitable Trust
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