New Zealand Māori and the kākāpō


The predominant Māori tribe of New Zealand’s South Island, Ngāi Tahu, has strong cultural, spiritual and traditional associations with the kākāpō.

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Kākāpō and Ngāi Tahu – the history

Every year, family groups of Ngāi Tahu spent time inland gathering and hunting seasonal food resources. On these journeys they followed a network of trails that linked places for gathering food. These places were called mahinga kai, and they stretched from the mountain haunts of the kākāpō to the sea. The seasonal journeys to mahinga kai became pivotal to the way of life in Te Waipounamu (South Island).

Each trail was memorised as a sequence of named landmarks, river systems, and resting places, each with stories that connected them to ancestors and tribal history.


During these journeys, Māori took advantage of the mating behaviour of the kākāpō by hunting them during the summer months.

Ngāi Tahu generally hunted the birds with dogs and, once caught, the kākāpō were usually plucked or skinned before eating.

Others were preserved in their own fat in wooden baskets made out of the inner bark of the totara tree or delicate containers made out of kelp. Bunches of kākāpō tail feathers were attached to the containers to identify the contents and provide attractive decoration.

Sometimes the feathers were individually woven into the cloaks, and the skins were softened and used to fashion chiefly garments for the wives and daughters of the leading chiefs. A very high value was placed on these garments.


Today some of these beautiful capes and cloaks still exist and Ngāi Tahu refer to them as taonga/tonga, or treasures, that have been handed down through the generations and thereby link them to their ancestors of the past. Even today when someone complains about being cold they will often be given the response;

“Me kauhi ranei koe ki te huruhuru Kākāpō, pu mai o te tonga?”

“Shall I cover you with the feathers of the kākāpō, heaped up here from the south?”

The New Zealand Government, through the Department of Conservation, acknowledges the association of Ngāi Tahu with the kākāpō by consulting them when making policy decisions concerning the protection, management, or conservation of the kākāpō.

Through the Ngāi Tahu Deed of Settlement, Ngāi Tahu also has a representative on the Department’s Kākāpō Recovery Programme. Tane Davis has represented the Māori tribe or iwi of Ngāi Tahu on the Kākāpō Recovery Group since 2005.


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