Richard Henry’s legacy lives on

Department of Conservation —  13/11/2019

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the death of conservationist Richard Henry who pioneered moving endangered native birds to island sanctuaries, to save them from extinction, more than 120 years ago.

Richard Henry’s journey across to Resolution Island by illustrator Riccardo Scott ©.

In 1894, Richard Henry was appointed custodian and caretaker of Resolution Island in Fiordland, New Zealand’s first island reserve for native wildlife.

Between 1895 and 1898, he moved 572 kākāpō and kiwi from the surrounding mainland to Resolution Island and neighbouring islands. This was done to save the birds from stoats, ferrets, and weasels introduced to control rabbits that had been introduced to remind British settlers of home.

Remains of Richard Henry’s kākāpō pen on Pigeon Island next to Resolution Island.
📷: Andrew Digby.

Henry, an Irishman, came to Southland in the late 1870s when he got a job shooting rabbits on a sheep station. He’d seen rabbits become a plague, stripping the land of grass and causing thousands of sheep to starve to death.

He then saw the stoats, ferrets and weasels laying waste to kākāpō and kiwi around Lake Te Anau. In 1893, he predicted these predators would wipe out kākāpō altogether. He thought the birds would be safe on his islands. His hopes were dashed when he saw a weasel on Resolution Island in 1900. 

By 1906, he’d trapped a ferret and witnessed ferret, weasel and cat tracks on Resolution Island. He knew his rescue efforts had been in vain.

Henry left Fiordland in 1908. He became caretaker on Kapiti Island Reserve until his retirement in 1911.  He lived at Katikati, on the shore of Tauranga Harbour, from 1911 to 1922. Then he moved to Helensville at the southern end of Kaipara Harbour from 1922 to 1928.

Left: Richard Henry by his boatshed on Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound Fiordland March 1904.
📷: Hocken Library, Dunedin.

Right: Richard Henry’s grave site Hillsborough Cemetery Auckland.
📷: Kate Lane.

In 1928, he was admitted to hospital in Auckland suffering from dementia. He died of heart failure on 13 November 1929, aged 84. He is buried at Hillsborough Cemetery in Auckland.

Acting Threatened Species Ambassador Erica Wilkinson describes Richard Henry as the Ed Hillary of the natural world in New Zealand. “Henry was the first to move native birds to islands, in an effort to protect them from introduced predators, and he did this 124 years ago.”

Darryl Eason from the Kākāpō Ops Team moving a kākāpō from predator free Whenua Hou.
📷: Deidre Vercoe.

Henry was also the first to use a muzzled dog, a fox terrier named Lassie, to locate the kākāpō and kiwi he moved to the Dusky Sound islands. Today, Conservation Dogs are widely used in New Zealand and around the world. They’re essential for locating native birds like kākāpō and kiwi in thick bush. They’re also trained to detect rats, mice, stoats, ferrets, weasels and even Argentine ants. We’re now also using them to sniff out weeds.  

Henry’s hard work to save hundreds of kākāpō and kiwi failed when stoats, ferrets, weasels and feral cats invaded Resolution Island. But the capture and transfer methods he pioneered were eventually used to rescue kākāpō, takahē, tīeke and other native wildlife from the brink of extinction by moving them to predator-free islands.

Kākāpō release on predator-free Hauturu / Little Barrier Island.
📷: Deidre Vercoe.

Erica says that “Henry developed a template for saving endangered native wildlife that we continue to use. And he showed us we would lose our unique native birds to introduced predators if we did not take action.

“Today, the country has embraced Henry’s call to arms. Predator Free communities, businesses and iwi are working to make the whole of Aotearoa safe, so kākāpō may once again boom on the mainland.

“Ninety years after his death, we can honour Richard Henry’s contribution to conservation, and complete his mission, by joining the movement to make New Zealand Predator Free by 2050.”

Find out more about Richard Henry, a forgotten pioneer, in this Stuff article marking the 90th anniversary of his death.

4 responses to Richard Henry’s legacy lives on

    Eve Kilmartin 15/11/2019 at 8:31 am

    Can we have a commemoration in some form or another for 2 great men of conservation in NZ, Richard Henry and Don Mertons!!😃😉.Seriously we need to recognise the valuable contributions both have made in thier lifetimes to conservation.C’mon DOC this is your arena and you should be leading the charge. A small insert on facebook doesnt do either of them justice in my opinion😇.

    Peter McLauchlan 14/11/2019 at 3:33 pm

    I love that Riccardo Scott illustration. Says a lot about the plight of Sirocco and his tribe. The future is looking bright. Thank you.


    And if Don Mertom hadn’t studied Richard Henry’s journals and insisted in using his methods, we’d still have lost those iconic birds.

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