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‘Bird of the Year’ flap: More Russian meddling in wildlife contest?

New Zealand is home to over 200 bird species and most of them are unique to the north and south islands where they have lived for millions of years. But while the Dodo might be dead, modern day drama and meddling certainly isn’t.

With many of New Zealand’s native birds in crisis, leading independent conservation organization Forest & Bird started up a yearly ‘Bird of the Year’ competition in order to raise awareness of native bird life. But instead of an increase in bird-watching or perhaps more money towards conservation – political turmoil unraveled. The reason? Suspicious votes from abroad, and a fair few from that sinister country RUSSIA!

Megan Hubscher, a spokesperson for Forest & Bird, is concerned: “People are coming up with all kinds of theories about Russian involvement in New Zealand elections. But we can assure everyone that everything seems above board this time around.”

But this seemingly innocent competition attracts controversy. Over the past 14 years, various voting scandals have caused a flap. Last year, a large black-and-white cormorant bird gained hundreds of suspicious votes – perhaps because of its common name: ‘the shag’! (Yes you laughed)

In 2017, vote-fixing claims came flooding in after 112 new email accounts had been set up to cast votes for a certain bird, and two years previously, two teenagers were caught setting up fake accounts to vote for the delightful kokako. Whoever thought political bird-fighting was such a thing?

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Fast forward to 2019, and Forest & Bird is responding with Pentagon-level protection in response to hacking and fake voting. Results this week saw ballots from almost 100 countries, with hundreds of votes from nearby Australia (684), America (563), the UK (682) and, of course… Russia (with 335 votes, obviously from Kremlin spies. Thank you very much, and spasibo).


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The winner of this year’s competition was announced as the penguin known as the ‘hoiho’. This endangered, yellow-eyed penguin is said to be the rarest in the world. But was this a fix or a genuine win? What can you believe these days? One Twitter bird lover wasn’t so sure: “Is there no election they (Russia) won’t meddle in?”

Forest & Bird says there is nothing to suggest a Russian hacking scandal, but mainstream and social media may hint otherwise.

Megan Hubscher added that New Zealand’s unique birds fascinate fans from all around the world and that maybe that was the reason for the Russian votes?

“We’ve had a look at the IP addresses and done a data scan on all of the votes, and it looks pretty clean from our point of view. The competition is open to anyone – people from Britain or Australia or Russia [who] want to get in on the action, they’re more than welcome to. New Zealand actually shares birds with Russia. We have the bar-tailed godwit that makes an annual round trip.”

But while the speculation might have been tongue-in-cheek, the constant Russia-bashing and finger-pointing is enough to drive anyone cuckoo. Maybe now Russia is just always the guilty party? It certainly seems so, as this week’s turn focuses on the criminally magic world of penguins, owls, and birds.

As for the Bird of the Year contest results, with votes cast from far flung places such as St Lucia to the Maldives, it seems we are just all bird lovers!

As for New Zealand’s beloved Dodo… I suppose Russia made that extinct as well?

By Martyn Andrews, RT senior culture editor

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