Our first conservation hero

One of the great things about the summer break is the opportunity for reading, something I've managed to spend a lot of time doing this holiday season. I suspect my love of reading is also tied to the fact that not much moving or physical motion is required and that you can lie out in the sun and read, on the couch, on a deck chair, on the lawn - anywhere! 

This summer, after quite a long period of reading trashy chick-lit, I've been getting back into reading nonfiction, and of course the kind of nonfiction I like is the kind about nature. 

Richard Henry of Resolution Island (Susanne and John Hill, 1987, John McIndoe Ltd).

First up on my summer reading list (which was an awesome pressie from my good friend and fellow nature lover Graeme Hill) is a fascinating account of the life of Richard Henry, arguably one of our first modern conservationists - and the pioneer of a variety of wildlife protection techniques that we are famous for in New Zealand today.

Richard Henry came from a family of Irish immigrants to Australia, where he grew up and where he perfected his keen and observant eye for the natural world, and eventually moved to New Zealand.

He spent much of his time in the Te Anau region, working as a shepherd, boatman and carpenter, and gaining much recognition and admiration for his knowledge of the native wildlife. He was also one of the first to raise the alarm about the growing impact of stoats, ferrets and weasels, which were introduced to try to combat the rabbit plague.

Stoats, weasels and ferrets were introduced in 1882 as the "natural enemies" of the rabbits and despite dire warnings from respected scientists in Britain and in New Zealand, the government continued to import and breed thousands of these mustelids at the behest of the pastoral lobby. It didn't take long (as predicted by naturalists like Andreas Reischek and Walter Buller) for the stoats and their cousins to change tack and gain an appetite for the large, mostly flightless native birds. 

Richard Henry outside his boatshed, Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound, Fiordland, March 1900

Richard Henry, living in the bush and in a front row seat to see the devastation, watched helplessly as his once common kakapo and kiwi neighbours disappeared in front of his eyes.

"On the west, from the mouth of the Waiau for 25 miles of beach, there are neither signs nor sounds of kakapo, weka, nor kiwi, where they used to be numerous, but there are plenty of ferret tracks on the beach. Up the creeks in the bush grey teal and blue duck were plentiful, but now they are all gone, and the black teal are rapidly going also, and in all probability will soon be simply a memory of the past."

It had taken about five years.

In 1891 the government undertook to make Resolution Island in Fiordland a reserve, and Richard Henry got the job as caretaker - our first ranger. During his time there, he became concerned about the impact the mustelids were having on birds such as kakapo and kiwi, and famously rowed more than 500 of them to what he believed was predator-free safety on Resolution over a period of six years. In 1901, a "weasel" (more likely a stoat) was spotted by visitors to Resolution Island, and after months trying to capture it and failing, he realised that all of his hard conservation work had been in vain. The kakapo disappeared, and Richard Henry took up a new post on another newly formed reserve, Kapiti Island. He died a lonely man in Helensville, with only the postmaster to attend his funeral.

Of course his work wasn't really in vain: his skills in translocation of birds, the idea of keeping birds safe in predator-free environments, as well as using dogs to track kakapo and kiwi are all cornerstones of New Zealand's conservation work today.

In addition, the Department of Conservation is working on a programme to rid Resolution Island of stoats once and for all. The 21,000 hectares will be covered in 2500 traps - and the final result of stoats being removed from this vast area will be a lasting legacy for a man who dedicated his life to the conservation of our native wildlife over a century ago. Many people do keep his name alive - through knowing and telling his fascinating story, or through naming a kakapo after him, or even a new kind of self-setting trap.

Richard Henry is a true Kiwi legend, and though his name might not be as famous as Sir Edmund Hillary's or Kate Sheppard's, it probably deserves to be, because he took the first steps to protect our wonderful wildlife from the peril of introduced predators. For that we should forever be grateful. I know I am.


Richard Henry the kakapo (who died end of 2010) was a fitting tribute to a man who pioneered conservation techniques and predator-free environments in New Zealand.

Have you heard of Richard Henry? Read any good nature books this summer? Did you realise that people were so concerned about introduced mammals over a hundred years ago?

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