The remarkable hunter that helped save the kākāpō

Department of Conservation —  12/10/2015

Last month the conservation community lost one of its pioneers. DOC’s Allan Munn writes about the life of Gary ‘Arab’ Aburn…

The recent death of Gary Aburn saddened his many friends and colleagues in DOC throughout the country. He died on 8 September at his home in Whataroa on the West Coast. He was 70.

Gary ‘Arab’ Aburn at his home in Whataroa.

Gary ‘Arab’ Aburn

‘Arab’, as he was known his whole working life, probably did more than anyone to save the kākāpō. Colleagues said without him, the species may have been extinct today. 86 kākāpō were caught on Rakiura between 1980 and 2000 and Arab caught and relocated 44 of them.

By the 1970s, there were thought to be no female kākāpō left until a colony was found on Rakiura. In 1980, calling on his remarkable hunting and dog-handling skills, Arab caught the first female kākāpō in about 70 years. Only 28 females were ever caught and Arab captured over half of them. This was a turning point for the survival of the species, establishing that females still existed and a viable population was present on Rakiura.

Gary Aburn (left) and Ralph Powlesland (right) tying a radio transmitter on a kakapo, Scollay's Hut, Stewart Island, 1983. Photographer: P.J. Moors.

Gary Aburn (left) and Ralph Powlesland (right) tying a radio transmitter on a kākāpō

Born in Northland in 1945, a mechanic by trade, he turned his back on the workshop and took to the hills, becoming a skilled pig hunter. His hunting abilities were remarkable. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became a meat hunter and during this time, shot and carried out over 2000 deer.

Arab moved to Whataroa in 1987 when he became the seasonal ranger at the white heron/kōtuku colony for the Department of Lands and Survey.

He has also made important contributions to international island predator eradications. He worked on contract for the Wildlife Service, Lands and Survey and DOC on islands such as Little Barrier, Rakiura, Whenua Hou, Enderby, St Pauls (French), Mauritius (British) and Macquarie Islands (Australian).

Gary with a kakapo and his dog on Maud Island in 1982 . Photographer: Dave Crouchley.

Gary with a kakapo and his dog in 1982

His last contract was a possum control operation in the Arthur Valley in Fiordland National Park in 2010.

Earlier this year, Arab received the Queens Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In the last few days of his life, the Minister of Conservation, Maggie Barry, wrote a note to Arab, which he greatly appreciated. It read:

“Thank you so much for all you have done to make such a difference to New Zealand conservation. You have established a legacy that many who follow you will do their very best to uphold.”

Kākāpō on Stewart Island.

Kākāpō on Stewart Island

In his book ‘Last Chance to See’ Douglas Adams described his experience meeting Arab:

gary-aburn-last-chance-to-see“I had no idea what I expected a freelance kākāpō tracker to look like, but once we saw it, it was clear that if he was hidden in a crowd of a thousand random people you would still know instantly that he was the freelance kākāpō tracker. He was tall, rangy, immensely weather-beaten, and he had a grizzled beard that reached all the way down to his dog, who was called Boss.

He nodded curtly to us and squatted down to fuss with his dog for a moment. Then he seemed to think that perhaps he had been a little over curt with us and leant across Boss to shake our hands. Thinking that he had perhaps overdone this in turn, he then looked up and made a very disgruntled face at the weather. With this brief display of complete social confusion he revealed himself to be an utterly charming and likeable man.”

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See, 1990

Arab with Mandy the kākāpō, the first female Kakapo seen in the Twentieth Century. Photo: Errol Samuellson.

Arab with Mandy the kākāpō, the first female Kakapo seen in the Twentieth Century

Arab was a great guy to go on a trip with, clever, tough, always the leader and he’ll be sorely missed by his friends.

2 responses to The remarkable hunter that helped save the kākāpō

    Vanessa Horwell 12/10/2015 at 8:44 am

    Rest in peace Arab. What a legend who was a real asset to New Zealand and a hero.


    I too was deeply saddened to read of the passing of this absolute legend when it comes to conservation and the saving of the Kakapo. An amazing man who I’m sure will be missed by many.