The ghost of the forest

For some strange reason, I have earned myself the reputation of being the German gentleman who likes to play it safe. (If you really, really want to have all the background info, just watch Kane Williams’ travel video).

Now, there is indeed no denying the fact that ‘no risk, no fun’ isn’t really my life motto. On the other hand, however, how does the following story fit into that picture:

This creature, my dear friends and readers, is not just an ordinary bird. It is a very rare bird. It can only be found in certain parts of Grande Terre, and nowhere else on this planet. It is one of the main reasons why I travelled to New Caledonia in the first place. And when do you think I went to search for it? On day 1, or day 2 – or perhaps on day 3 at the latest? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong…

I went to see the Kagou on my second-last day in New Caledonia! (day 35 of 36, if you must know). Now if this isn’t extremely risk-loving and reckless, then I don’t know what is…

By now you must be asking yourselves: what on earth is so special about this bird? Why was Sebastian so keen on seeing it? Why was he (the cowardly German gentleman) so certain to find it that he left it till the very end of his stay in NC? And why is he (the bird, not Sebastian) often referred to as ‘the ghost of the forest’?

Well, the Kagou (Rhynochetos jubatus) is one of a kind and a fascinating creature in so many different ways. An endemic species to New Caledonia, he is a flightless inhabitant of natural forests and woodlands on Grande Terre. For many years his population was so small that the species was close to total extinction. The two main reasons for this dire situation were (and still are) (1) habitat loss and (2) predation by dogs, cats, rats etc.

For millions of years, there were no terrestrial mammals on Grande Terre. The Kagou had few enemies, mainly large birds of prey. But no predators on the ground – except humans, of course. There was no real need for the Kagou to fly, hence he ‘unlearned’ this ability. The Kagous of today still have wings, but they cannot fly.

This wasn’t a problem until the late 18th century, when European settlers arrived in the archipelago. Because they did not come unaccompanied. They introduced a whole range of predators to the islands (sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident) which had a devastating effect on entire populations of birds and other animals.

Today, the Kagou is largely confined to two areas on Grande Terre: the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue in the south of the island, and the Parc des Grandes Fougères in the centre. At the Blue River the population is healthy, thanks to strict protective measures. And the birds are used to the presence of humans. Hence it is not at all difficult to observe them.

Further north, in the Parc des Grandes Fougères, however, the population has significantly decreased in recent years, probably due to stray dogs in the area which destroy the nests and kill the chicks.

Those of you who have read my article about the Société Calédonienne d’Ornithologie (SCO) will remember that the Kagou also inhabits other parts of Grande Terre outside of the aforementioned sanctuaries. However, due to their rather secretive lifestyle and the large size of their territories, they are not at all easy to find. Nobody really knows for sure how many birds there are – the estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 individuals – and what their distribution across Grande Terre is.

Every visitor to New Caledonia will see Kagous for sure, though not as wild animals. The bird has in a way become the country’s symbol, a kind of heraldic animal. For instance, it is the emblem of OPT-NC, the national telecommunications and postal services company. Many other companies use it as a symbol too. One of the Pacific Franc bills is also graced by an image of a Kagou in full nuptial display.

But why ‘ghost of the forest’? He doesn’t make much noise, the Kagou, although sometimes he does bark like a dog (hence the onomatopoeic name). He moves about the forest floor more or less stealthily in his search for food. Takes a few quick paces, then stands absolutely still for half a minute or so.

A truly enigmatic creature. I love him.

All the above pictures where taken in Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue where I went together with Kane, my fellow traveller, on December the 26th. It was a fantastic day, and that was even before we discovered the lunar landscapes around Yaté reservoir!

But what about those photos at the end of this article?

Well, those of you who have made it this far in the article, you really deserve to learn to truth about me. Forget everthing that I wrote earlier on about myself. I am indeed the German gentleman who likes to play it safe.


Already weeks before our trip to Rivière Bleue I paid a visit to the wonderful Parc zoologique et forestier in the capital Nouméa (practically a zoo), in order to take photos of the Kagous there…

I wanted to make sure to bring home with me decent photos of this amazing bird, the emblem of modern-day New Caledonia, that’s all. Do you really expect me to take the risk of returning home empty-handed? No way!

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Neither are you, I hope!

Do you want to see all the articles on New Caledonia? Then please click here.

Published by Sebastian

Geographer, naturalist and photographer ( Based in Germany, but always keen to travel and explore

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