Richard Henry of Resolution Island is a pivotal father figure in New Zealand conservation whose heroic solo, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to save wildlife from invasive predators is a tragic story yet to have an ending.
As European settlement gathered pace across New Zealand during the second half of the 19th Century, vast areas of native habitat were converted to pasture for farming as New Zealand became Britain's farm in the South Pacific.
In a few short decades, the lessons learnt from a thousand years of land changes in Britain were visited upon New Zealand and great swathes of native forest, grassland and wetlands were decimated. Along with the loss of these habitats went the extinction of many species of our unique flora and fauna.
As the century progressed, a few enlightened settlers recognised what was being lost and called for reserves to preserve at least some of what made New Zealand so different from the British Isles. Little Barrier Island / Hauturu in the Hauraki Gulf became the first nature reserve in 1896, Kapiti Island near Wellington became a bird sanctuary in 1897 and Ulva Island / Te Wharawhara at Stewart Island became a reserve "for native game and flora" in 1899.
Men like Thomas Potts from Canterbury and Herbert Guthrie-Smith from Hawkes Bay were immigrants who became wealthy gentlemen farmers and made observing and writing about natural history their passionate pastimes. In contrast, Walter Lawry Buller was New Zealand born and became wealthy practising law. Their books, along with those from many others, provide an invaluable record as New Zealand's landscape and biota were massively transformed.
While the study and collection of nature was hugely popular in Victorian society, one other man's pursuit of natural history gives him a claim to being truly recognised as the father of New Zealand conservation. Richard Treacy Henry was born in June 1845 in County Kildare, Ireland. In 1851 he emigrated, with his family, to Australia where he grew up before moving to New Zealand in the 1870's. In 1883 he settled near Te Anau and worked various jobs, including as a rabbiter, while studying birdlife and writing natural history articles for newspapers and others.
The rabbits he hunted had been introduced from Britain from the 1830's and reached plague proportions from the 1870's, especially in Otago and Southland. They pushed into Canterbury in the 1880's before overrunning the Mackenzie Country in the 1890's. Releases from Blenheim spread up the Wairau and Awatere valleys into inland Marlborough then into north Canterbury. Their impact on runholders was devastating, and by 1887 more than 500,000 hectares had been abandoned in Otago alone. Other stations had their flocks of sheep reduced by 75 - 90%.
In response, farmers sought the introduction of ‘natural enemies of the rabbit’ and from the 1870's, stoats, ferrets and weasels were imported. Even eagles were considered and a few mongoose were also liberated, but didn't establish. Shipping live stoats, ferrets and weasels from the UK proved to be very difficult so breeding facilities were established and in total tens of thousands of predators were released over the next 20 years, including hundreds of cats.
At 208 sq.km, Resolution Island is New Zealand's seventh largest island and the largest in Fiordland. Its European name recalls Captain Cook's ship, and his visit to Dusky Sound in March 1773, during his second voyage to New Zealand. When it was eventually recognised just how devastating the introduction of those ‘natural enemies of the rabbit’ were for native wildlife, the government was persuaded, in 1891, to gazette Resolution Island as a reserve. In 1894 Richard Henry was appointed caretaker, making him probably New Zealand's first park ranger.
During his 14 year stay he worked to stock Resolution Island with many flightless birds, including 700 kakapo, kiwi and weka. He did this by rowing throughout the fiords from his home on Pigeon Island to capture birds using his faithful dog Lassie. In doing so, he pioneered techniques that have since underpinned the conservation of New Zealand's endangered birds, including "island marooning" that has been pivotal to saving many species.
Alas, it was to no avail as around 1900 stoats reached Resolution Island and its adjacent islands by swimming across the narrow fiords from the mainland. They went on to drive kakapo to local extinction. In 1908, due to his advancing age, Richard Henry moved from Resolution Island to become the caretaker on Kapiti Island where he remained until 1911. After leaving the government service he retired to Katikati in the Bay of Plenty before moving to Helensville on the Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland, in 1922.
Richard Henry died on 13 November 1929 aged 84 and was buried in Auckland's Hillsborough cemetery. It is reported that only the local postmaster attended his funeral. The last surviving Fiordland kakapo, captured as an adult in 1975 and later evacuated to a safe island was named after him and died at Christmas in 2010 to bring to a close a story that spans over a century.
The New Zealand Wildlife Service placed a plaque on Richard Henry's grave that simply reads "Richard Henry Pioneer Fiordland" in recognition of the work that he did and the articles he wrote that informed so much of the early work to save kakapo from extinction. Today, the Department of Conservation is pursuing the eradication of stoats on Resolution Island, a task that has so far taken 12 years, and is ongoing, as predators still swim to the island from the mainland, just as they did 120 years ago to defeat Richard Henry's heroic efforts to save vulnerable wildlife.
What's in a Name?
The familiar saying "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" warns about the risks that come with trying to achieve more by challenging the status quo.