SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
March 18, 1974
For years the New Zealand government has considered the deer a pest. Now gunship meat hunters, answering the clamor for venison, may send the buck the way of the buffalo
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March 18, 1974

Slaughter On South Island

For years the New Zealand government has considered the deer a pest. Now gunship meat hunters, answering the clamor for venison, may send the buck the way of the buffalo

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Until quite recently, the Fiordland National Park of New Zealand's Southern Alps was a kind of high-rise heaven for outdoorsmen. The park's three million mountainous acres offered something spectacular and soul-satisfying to everyone with a taste for rugged activity—sheer cliffs and ice-topped 8,000-foot peaks for the mountaineer; year-round skiing on the countless glaciers; clear, tumbling trout streams aboil with rainbows and browns as long as a man's leg; and more big game, it seemed, than an army of hunters could kill in two lifetimes. Alas, no more. Today a pall of doom hangs over the country, compounded of gunsmoke, gasoline fumes and the reek of flyblown deer guts.

After an intensified five-year, government-backed campaign to eradicate New Zealand's big-game herd, Fiordland has turned into a nightmarish battleground, an antipodean cross between the late air war in Vietnam and the slaughter of the American buffalo herd a century ago. More than 50 helicopters flap the slopes, carrying hunters who zap red deer, tahr and chamois at point-blank range with telescopically sighted military rifles. Since the meat has sold to the West German venison market for as much as $1.60 a pound, unbridled competition among the chopper operators has produced a rash of sabotage and skinned knuckles galore. It may soon result in open aerial warfare.

Just as the sight of circling vultures over the fertile game plains of East Africa evokes a visceral sense of malaise in paradise, so does the presence of the meat hawks alter the mood of Fiordland. Every day, regardless of season or weather, float planes and big transport helicopters take off from the bustling resort town of Te Anau, on the park's eastern border, with tons of freshly killed meat. The image of 10 or 12 deer, open-bellied and round-eyed in death, dangling from a chopper's cargo hook, the stags still in velvet, the hinds with their unborn young tucked efficiently in their eviscerated body cavities, has stolen much of the joy from the country. Recently an English tourist stood on the neat lawn of the Te Anau Hotel and watched a chopper flail past with its grisly cargo. He shook his head sadly. "I was planning a two-day outing on the Milford Track, along with a spot of fly-fishing, you know," he said. "But now I don't know. It would be like backpacking through an abattoir."

Nonetheless, just as most hunters of today would like to have witnessed the great buffalo stands of a century ago to see how it looked when hundreds of the huge, shaggy beasts dropped to a single rifle, to feel the kick of the Sharps and smell the stink of the burning black powder, there is a compulsion to witness this slaughter—which may well be the last great hunt of human history. Moral and ecological considerations aside, it would be bloody exciting.

Deaker picked me up in front of the Te Anau Hotel at 4:30 a.m. The lake was dead flat. You could see the reflections of the snow peaks on the water, and the medicinal reek of the blue gum trees came sharply through the cold spring air. Too pretty a day for death, I thought. Deaker was driving a battered, faded Humber sedan with kiddy toys wedged under the seats. Strange transportation for a man who grosses $7,500 a day, any day he can fly. Deaker hunched over the wheel as we drove to the helicopter pad. A tall, thin young man with apple cheeks and curly dark hair, a shy demeanor, 28 years old with a wife and two sons. Cyril Richard Deaker, meat hunter. His friends call him Dick.

"I used to leave the helicopter at the pad south of town," he apologized, "but then we had this bloody business of the sabotage, you see. One bloke found sand in his motor—while he was flying, mind you—and we had two aircraft burned just last month in the hangar. The competition among the venison companies is getting a bit out of hand. Now I leave the helicopter in my neighbor's backyard. Sleep sounder that way."

The chopper was a Hiller 12E, dirty white with the words "Alpine Helicopters Ltd." stenciled on the tail. The rotor tips were painted Day-Glo orange, the better to spot them in case of a crash. The Plexiglas bubble was pearly with the morning dew, and a set of deer's feet lay beaded and stiff in the webbing of the side skids. They sell the forelegs of the deer for gun and hat racks. Indeed, they sell all of the deer except the guts. The meat goes for 75� a pound right now—half the price it sold for a few months ago, before cheaper Russian, Scottish and East German venison entered the European market. Since the stags are all in velvet now, it being New Zealand's spring, the hunters have a bonus: Asians prize the velvet of the red deer as an aphrodisiac, and pay $15 a pound for it. Deer tails are also favored on the aphrodisiac market. The "tusks" of the stags—those two upper teeth that Americans know only as "elk's teeth"—find a good market in the U.S. Even the unborn fawns are marketable. Their meat is tender, and their silky hides make fine leather for purses, gloves and ties.

Deaker lights off the engine and the big, bright rotors begin their hollow flapping. Ominous, I think. But why? Then the connection comes: Vietnam and the gunships. When the engine is sufficiently warm, Dick lifts off and hovers over me. I snap a line attached to a 44-gallon gasoline drum into the hook on the chopper's belly, then scramble onto the skid and into the bubble as Deaker powers up, up and away into the mountains. The earth recedes at a frightening rate. This chopper, I know, is capable of only 80 mph flat-out, but its rate of climb, like that of all its cousins, is conducive to acrophobia. We flop-flop our way up Lake Te Anau; trout are rising in the glassy bays. At the estuary of the Eglinton River we drift down over meadows gaudy with lupine—pink, purple, yellow—and drop the gas drum on a dirt road, next to a Land Rover.

"My shooter and his pal are just up the road," Dick said as we refueled the helicopter. "They're probably foot hunting. That's how it all began, you know, with foot hunting—these blokes would just pack a water bottle and a rifle back into the bush and knock down maybe 20 deer a day. Then when the market for meat started to go up they went to Land Rovers, then jet boats, then fixed-wing aircraft, and now it's gotten to helicopters."

We heard a couple of shots up the road. Dim and distant, the echoes bounced back from the forested faces of the Earl Mountains just north of us.

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