The New Zealand Activist Who Fought For the Kakapo

The kakapo is a unique bird who is endemic to New Zealand.
The kakapo is a unique bird who is endemic to New Zealand.

Exactly 90 years back on this day, an 84-year-old man named Richard Henry, passed away due to “senile decay and heart failure” in Avondale Mental Hospital. No one else but the postmaster attended his funeral. Today, this very man who died a lonely death is recognized as the "grandfather of conservation in New Zealand." His life and work now inspire hundreds of budding conservationists to dedicate their time and effort in saving the critically endangered kakapo, the pride of New Zealand.

This article narrates the story of Richard Henry and that of the kakapos he strived to save from certain extinction.

An Untouched Paradise With An Extraordinary Bird

About 800 years ago when humans were yet to set their foot on the islands that now comprise New Zealand, the region was home to an extraordinary collection of birds. With virtually no land mammals on these islands, the birds thrived and evolved to develop unusual characteristics. Here, they filled the ecological niches occupied by mammals elsewhere in the world.

Among these birds was the kakapo or Strigops habroptilus. Although the world is home to over 350 species of parrots, the kakapo stands out among them as it has taken a unique path. It is flightless, ground-dwelling, and nocturnal.

Like other parrots, however, the kakapo is highly intelligent. The kakapo can also climb trees with the help of its specially designed wings. It has forward-facing eyes to help it see in darkness. It is also blessed with a long lifespan of an estimated 60 years or more. The kakapo is exclusively herbivorous feeding on native plants, fruits, and other plant parts.

Thus, nature engineered the kakapo to flourish in its predator-free island habitat, and it, of course, fulfilled the purpose. Before the arrival of humans, the kakapo had large, stable populations distributed throughout what is today called "mainland New Zealand."

Catastrophic Arrival Of Humans

The Polynesians were the first humans to land on the shores of New Zealand. They went there in search of food and a better life. When they came, they were not alone. They brought dogs as companions and hunting partners. Rats arrived in their boats. The innocent defence of the native island species was no match to the newly introduced predators on their land. The Maoris hunted them and cleared massive tracts of their native habitat while the invasive species introduced by the Maoris wiped out entire populations of these native animals at an incredibly fast pace.

32 species of birds became extinct in the 600 years of pre-European human settlement in the area. The kakapos were also one of the victims of this catastrophe but managed to hang on.

However, as the Maoris had no intention of leaving the land, they soon realized that conservation of its native flora and fauna was vital to their continued existence. Soon, they shifted to more sustainable economic practices that were less destructive in nature.

But, unlike the Maoris, who now caused less severe ecological damage, early European settlers paid little heed to the need for conservation in their newly discovered land. They came to displace and replace all that was "native," and reinforce their European culture and technologies in New Zealand.

They did not stop there but imported exotic species into the islands. Acclimatization societies started operating diligently since the 1930s to introduce new species like rabbits in Victorian New Zealand.

For the Europeans, the new land represented food, shelter, and money. Busy with hoarding wealth, they paid little heed to the long-term implications of their action. Critics were few at that time and mostly from members of their society. Henry Richard was one of them.

Conservation Against All Odds

What makes Henry Richard an exceptional conservationist is that he attempted to protect native wildlife in New Zealand in an era when most of the society in which he lived hardly gave a thought to it. Also, Henry lacked formal education in the field that often led to the dismissal of his ideas as amateurish. Instead, experience and passion were what he possessed.

Richard Henry's interest in the natural world grew when he migrated to Australia with his family from Ireland in 1851. By the 1860s, he had arrived in New Zealand. Here, he settled down in Lake Te Anau. He continued to expand his passion in natural history by writing articles on the same for the Otago Witness and other publications.

Among the many native species of New Zealand, the unique and endemic kakapos fascinated Richard. He meticulously studied them and kept accounts. He believed that the kakapos were the easiest things to exterminate.

It was not long before his beliefs turned into a terrifying reality.

The Arrival of Species

The liberation of introduced rabbits in New Zealand by the Europeans had begun to have disastrous effects on the economy of the region. The European sheep farmers complained that the rabbits were gnawing away at their pockets by consuming the best grass, leaving little quality food for their livestock. Now, they demanded biological controls from the government in the form of mustelids - ferrets, stoats, and weasels to be brought in from their native lands into New Zealand.

This time, however, environmental consciousness was at a higher level. A group of conservationist scientists, albeit a small one, alerted the government that the introduction of the mustelids would ring the death knell for New Zealand's native flora and fauna. However, at the end of the day, money spoke, and in 1882, the government-supported shipments of weasels, stoats, and ferrets landed on the shores of New Zealand.

Richard's nightmare now came true. He witnessed with shock the eradication of entire populations of kakapo, kiwi, and weka by the predatory mustelids near his home. He believed that the only way to stop this was to create safe havens for these birds on remote islands. He was hopeful that such efforts would help conserve the birds for at least half a century when people would finally realize the worth of this species.

At the same time that Richard was desperate to take some action, a few others were also thinking like him. Soon, many of the renowned conservationists and ornithologists of New Zealand decided that the creation of island sanctuaries was essential if the endemic birds were to be saved. After a lot of debate and arguments over the idea and its execution, Resolution Island was selected as one of the sites for such sanctuaries. The government caved in to the demands of the conservationists who came from the upper circles of society, and a post for a Resolution Island curator was created. Richard who was then fighting severe depression and had recovered from a failed suicide attempt got the job he had been craving for.

With his beloved dog Lassie, and assistant Andrew Burt as co-workers, Richard immediately set out on a mission to rescue the kakapos. A muzzled Lassie helped sniff out kakapos on the mainland. The rescued birds were then encaged and transported to Resolution Island and some smaller islands in Dusky Sound, Fiordland, via boat. About 500 kakapos were successfully reintroduced by Richard.

There, he built kakapo pens for the birds some of which are still intact today.

However, despite his immense efforts and passionate will, the conservation story of kakapos on Resolution Island failed. The predators managed to swim to the island in 1900, killing every kakapo inhabiting it.

A Past Failure, A Modern-Day Success Story

Although Richard failed in saving the kakapos and died a lonely man, his efforts are recognized today as pioneering in the field of conservation. The very method used to save the kakapos in Richard's time is today the only real hope for the kakapos.

In the 21st century New Zealand, kakapos are still critically endangered species and absent in the mainland of the country. However, the remaining population of just around 144 is distributed in three offshore islands that have been rendered predator-free after gigantic efforts were launched to ensure this status. Here, a group of wildlife biologists nurture the remaining kakapos and monitor them rigorously. Each kakapo has a name and is individually assessed for its health condition. The distinctive mating behavior of the species whereby males sit in a hollow and boom loudly and make a wheezing call to attract females also doesn't help much. Given their low numbers, most males go without mating. Here, researchers come to their aid. To restrict the ill effects of inbreeding that often produces infertile eggs, DNA genetic rescue offers a lifeline for this charismatic species. The genome of each kakapo is fully sequenced to detect the relations between individuals to allow controlled breeding between the most distantly related pairs under human supervision.

2019 recorded a massive boost in the kakapo population with 70 chicks born in the unusually long breeding season this year. The current adult population of 147 is thus expected to experience a boost.

So, Richard Henry's original vision of saving kakapos in island sanctuaries is gradually being realized in 21st century New Zealand. In fact, it is not only the human Richard Henry but a kakapo carrying his name that also played an active role in the conservation of this species. In 1975, researchers discovered a single middle-aged male kakapo in Fiordland who was named Richard Henry. Kakapo Richard bred with several females over the next few decades to produce offsprings that helped dramatically increase the kakapo population.


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