Richard Henry and the Kakapo

It was 1893 and Richard Henry was 48 years old. The woman he had loved had rejected him. A close friend had just been killed in a boating accident. He suffered from chronic low back pain and was always taking pills. His life passion in recent years was studying and attempting to save New Zealand’s flightless birds, and he had hoped to get a job as the curator of a new bird sanctuary on Resolution Island but that had been indefinitely postponed.

He left Te Anau where he had been living on the South Island and travelled to the North Island, stopping to soak at the geothermal hot springs at Rotorua in an attempt to relieve his back pain. It didn’t help. He met with several botanists and naturalists at universities but they showed no real interest in this self-educated man’s viewpoints on birds. He had no work and was too old for the hard physical labor of tree-cutting. His life had come to nothing, and while in Auckland, he decided to kill himself. The gun barrel wasn’t aligned properly and the first bullet he shot deflected off his skull and lodged harmlessly in his head. He re-cocked the revolver and fired again.

This second time the gun misfired. This apparently gave him pause, and he decided to ‘put it off to see what would turn up’. A doctor at the Auckland hospital removed the first bullet which lay flattened against his skull.

Richard Henry was born in Ireland in 1845. His family immigrated to Australia when he was six years old, and he moved to New Zealand in the 1870’s. He lived in Te Anau in the Fiordland region of New Zealand, a vast, rugged area of fiords, bush and sheep farming. He worked at a variety of trades: rabbit hunter, guide, boatman, explorer, bird collector, carpenter, taxidermist, naturalist, sawmiller and overall handyman.

It was during his early years in Te Anau that he worked as a rabbit hunter. It is hard to fathom the extent of the rabbit plague that had been released on New Zealand by the introduction of the rabbit. Rabbits were released in the Te Anau area from about 1862 to 1868 as a game animal. But they spread and multiplied like—well, like rabbits. The ever-increasing tide of rabbits spread outward from the areas where they were first introduced. They ravaged the ground cover that usually fed the sheep, so much so that sheep perished starving to death in their path.

As an example, one sheep station in the area infested in 1875 had 120 men with dogs employed to kill rabbits. Despite these efforts (killing upwards of 500 rabbits/day), the sheep numbers on the station fell from 50,000 to 23,000 because of rabbit foraging. The rabbit problem became a huge financial concern.

Te Anau today

Te Anau today

In 1876 several gentlemen in Invercargill, southeast of Te Anau, requested five pairs of weasels to be sent to them from England. Weasels help keep rabbits in check in England and it was hoped that they would do the same here. Even at this early date, a number of scientists adamantly opposed this, stating that the release of such animals would have a disastrous effect on New Zealand’s birds.

Despite this, the government acquiesced to the wishes of the landowners and the three vicious mustelid predators (weasels, ferrets and stoats) were systematically imported into New Zealand over a number of years and bred—thousands of them. This continued until about 1897, an indication of the strength of pastoral lobby and its misguided interest in controlling the rabbit population, despite obvious signs of the native flightless bird population being decimated.

First to be wiped out in the Te Anau area were the weka, a large, flightless bird, which looks almost like a large hen, endemic to New Zealand . Also at risk were the kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic, long billed flightless bird, and the kakapo. The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), is a beautifully-colored, large 25-inch, nocturnal, flightless parrot, moss-green in color with a lifespan of 95 years. It can climb up into trees but moves in a cumbersome manner. All three of these birds once were plentiful throughout New Zealand.



Little spotted kiwi

Little spotted kiwi



Along with the introduction of the mustelid predators, early settlers also thought nothing of shooting birds by the hundreds or even thousands. They were shot for food and sport and there was an insatiable demand for New Zealand’s exotic birds for the museums and parlors in Europe.

Over the years, Richard Henry had become a self-taught naturalist and early-on recognized the birds’ plight. In the late 1880’s he wrote a number of newspaper articles and a pamphlet on the rabbit-mustelid-bird problem describing the precipitous drop in flightless bird populations. Of particular concern to him was the drop in the numbers of kakapo along with the kiwi and weka.

In 1891, the New Zealand government recognized this and set aside Resolution Island, 80 square miles, just off the coast of Fiordland and at the time predator-free, as a nature preserve and bird sanctuary. The idea was to transport birds from the mainland to the island where they could survive and prosper free from predators. Legal and monetary haggling delayed the project, and it was during this time that Henry made his fateful trip up to Auckland, which turned out to be a turning point in his life. Within a year in 1894, he was offered the position as Curator and Caretaker of Resolution Island, in a sense the country’s first wildlife ranger.

Resolution Island to the right in photograph

Resolution Island to the right in photograph

Location of Resolution Island off coast of South Island of New Zealand

Location of Resolution Island off coast of South Island of New Zealand

Henry moved into action. He built a cabin on Pigeon Island alongside Resolution Island and established his bird camp for the care and transport of birds. Here he would live in relative isolation for the next 14 years. For part of this time, he used part of his own meager salary to hire a boy to help him. Using a 16-foot dingy named the Putangi after his favorite bird, the paradise duck, he and his assistant explored the rugged terrain of Resolution Island and surroundings.

Richard Henry at his cabin on Pigeon Island

Richard Henry at his cabin on Pigeon Island

To capture birds, Henry used a dog with a muzzle and a bell. The dog would race off and find a bird. Henry often alone or with his assistant would follow the sound of the bell fighting through the thick New Zealand bush, hopefully getting to the bird before it escaped, or before the dog injured it despite the muzzle. Then the bird would be placed in a portable backpack cage and transported back to his camp on Pigeon Island. All day could be spent attempting to capture and bring back just one bird. The difficulty in doing all this can’t be overestimated. The Fiordland terrain is exceedingly rugged, the coastal waters treacherous, and the weather notorious for its severity and unpredictability.

One of Henry's dogs with muzzle and bell

One of Henry’s dogs with muzzle and bell

Over the years, Henry would relocate some 750 birds (kakapo, weka and kiwi) to Resolution Island and surrounding smaller islands.

During these years, Henry was also an astute and accurate chronicler of bird behavior. For example, he described such things as how a kiwi would react to an intruder in their territory by stomping through the forest in a noisy manner which Henry termed ‘putting on style’. He also noted how the kakapo would only produce eggs every second year, details that were later corroborated by scientists. He published a number of articles and eventually a book, The Habits of the Flightless Birds of New Zealand.


During this time, mustelids had been seen in nearby areas making their way toward Resolution Island. Then in 1900 what Henry feared most happened. Guests aboard a schooner visiting Henry’s Resolution Island saw a weka being chased on the beach by a weasel (later felt to be a stoat). Henry’s sanctuary had been compromised. Even one stoat could devastate the entire population of birds Henry had worked so hard to protect.

Henry went into immediate action, setting traps and putting out poison. He caught nothing and the bird population seemed to be surviving. Perhaps the observers had been mistaken.

Then six months later he himself saw a weasel (or stoat) on Resolution Island. For the next three months, he again attempted to trap and kill the weasel hoping it was only a single animal that had somehow swum to the island. Again he was without success, and he knew in his heart that it was only a matter of time before all his work would be proved to have been done for naught.

During this time, more tourists, prospectors, fishermen and hunters were coming into the area threatening both the birds and the environment. Often they brought dogs with them, which were devastating to native birds. Henry, alone and getting on in years, could do little to stop their degradations.

Introduced species of birds, which over the years had grown more plentiful in the area, also seemed to displace the native birds. And rats which competed for the bird’s food supply and sometimes ate bird eggs were also taking a toll.

Also in 1904 re-interpretation of the legal status transferred authority of Resolution Island over to the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts in some ways diminishing its protection.

Hence, by the early 1900’s, the birds that Henry had tried so assiduously to protect were under assault on multiple fronts: tourists, hunters with guns and dogs, mustelids, introduced species of birds, rats and the change in status of Resolution Island.

In 1907, Richard Henry resigned from his position at Resolution Island. He was older now, but in great part he was depressed and discouraged and left because he knew the prognosis for survival of birds he had so carefully brought to Resolution Island and surrounding islands was not good. Indeed, within a few years, all his transported birds would be wiped out.

Henry took a position at Kapiti Island, another bird sanctuary island near Wellington. Then in 1912, he retired and moved to Katikati, not far from where we live now, and then in 1922 to Helensville, north of Auckland. He bought a small cottage there and this rugged explorer, bird-lover and early conservationist lived there unnoticed befriended only by the postmaster. In 1928 he was admitted to a mental hospital for confusion and died in 1929 of ‘senile decay and heart failure’. The postmaster was the only one to attend his funeral.

Over the next years, Henry’s fears for the survival of the kakapo in particular became true. The bird disappeared entirely from the North Island and most areas of the South Island being found in only a few remote locations.

The situation continued to worsen. By the late 1960’s all kakapo that had been captured for breeding had died and none were known to exist in the wild. The bird was extinct or close to it. Using helicopters and other electronic equipment eighteen birds (all male) were found in Fiordland between 1974-1978. Five of these were released on remote Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds and felt to be safe from predators.

Kakapo recovery program showing just how magnificent and large these birds can be

Kakapo recovery program showing just how magnificent and large these birds can be

Henry’s legacy and pioneering work with island sanctuaries was now being repeated. It had been realized that many New Zealand animals are incapable of co-existence with predatory mammals. Long-term control of predators on the mainland is often unfeasible, hence island sanctuaries are their only hope of survival.

Then another population of kakapo including females was found on Stewart Island off the southern tip of the South Island. This population was rapidly being destroyed by feral cats.

Meanwhile, in 1982 history repeated itself. A stoat was found on Maud Island and the four remaining kakapo were immediately moved to Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf along with 22 birds, including 9 females, from Stewart Island. Over the last years, breeding populations have also been established on two other offshore islands.

As of 2014, although the situation is improving slightly, currently less than 150 kakapo remain.



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




4 thoughts on “Richard Henry and the Kakapo

  1. I’ve never seen a Kakapo. What an incredible bird! I love reading these posts – always informative and well written, and always interesting.

  2. So interesting. Never even knew a bird called Kakapo existed. Love the old photos esp. the dog with the muzzle – very informative.

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