The Maoris, the descendants of the Polynesian pioneers, were—and are—of the opinion that this brave, eccentric creature was a direct ancestor of the Tane Mahuta, the God of the Forest, and that it continues to enjoy his special favor. Not wanting to incur his wrath, Maoris didn't ordinarily hunt the birds, and in fact placed them under a powerful tapu, the Maori version of taboo. Commoners and slaves who accidentally or intentionally molested a kiwi were summarily executed. This was a strong deterrent against casual poaching. On the other hand, it was obvious to the upper classes that such a semidivine creature had powerful mana (medicine) which they themselves coveted. Therefore, after suitable prayers, some kiwis were killed and their feathers used to make ornate ceremonial robes for important persons.
By the 20th century, as domestic food supplies became more plentiful—and kiwis much scarcer—European opinions about the bird became somewhat similar to those of the early Maoris; that for ethical, esthetic and nostalgic reasons, the community interest was better served by preserving kiwis than by killing them. A national act gave the species complete protection; since 1953 it has been illegal to hunt or capture kiwis except for ceremonial purposes, e.g., to be displayed for public good in zoos and museums. Because of this ecological tapu—and also because of successful efforts to eliminate introduced mammalian predators—kiwi populations are now recovering.
There may be a moral here: that of all the creatures of the world, this modest, down-to-earth bird is the only one whose name has been adopted and is constantly evoked by an entire nation. Lions, bears, dragons and eagles are much flashier, to be sure, but their characteristics—or at least the ones we symbolically assign them—may have become obsolete and counterproductive for purposes of contemporary heraldry. One can look a long way before finding a beast that provides a better present, and presumably future, role model than does this tenacious survivor, the non-predatory but doughty, ancient but adaptable kiwi.