Richard Henry was a persistent man. He wanted to save the kākāpō and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way.
Determinedly, he and an assistant rowed cages full of the fluffy green flightless birds to Fiordland’s Resolution Island in 1894, creating the world’s first island bird sanctuary.
The birds were already in peril in the 1800’s. Stoats were their enemy and there was a push to find a way to help the birds.
Richard Treacy Henry was born on June 4, 1845, in County Kildare in Ireland, the fourth of seven children of John Stephenson Henry and his wife Sarah Anna.
Initially the family came out to Australia, Richard’s mother and baby brother died on the journey. The rest of the family moved to Melbourne eventually settling in the Warrnambool district of western Victoria.
Richard spent a lot of time with local Aboriginals, observing the seasons and wildlife and was fascinated. After a failed sawmill business with his father, and a marriage to Isabella Curran, Richard packed up and headed to New Zealand by himself in 1874.
Self-reliant, he travelled, taking jobs where he could before settling at the southern end of Lake Te Anau where he became known as a bush guide.
Any time to himself was spent observing birds. He correctly attributed a loud booming sound heard locally to the kākāpō and, noting that its numbers, along with those of the weka, kiwi, teal and whio, declined after the introduction of weasels, stoats and ferrets and he predicted the kākāpō 's extinction.
He became friends with other conservationists and they began to promote the idea of Resolution Island as a safe haven for birds away from the dangers of the mainland.
Nothing initially came of it and Richard became depressed, moving to Auckland but then he was appointed the curator and caretaker on the island.
He and an assistant Andrew Burt sorted out accommodation on the island then undertook the laborious task of rowing more than 700 kākāpō to the island.
He captured 100 or so more, shipping them to other sanctuaries.
After four years of determined effort, he settled into the island to watch over the birds. But the same problem that existed on the mainland, had come to the island, stoats.
In 1908 he was transferred to Kapiti Island where he continued to work until 1911. He retired to Katikati in 1912, moving to Helensville in 1922. He died in the Auckland Mental Hospital at Avondale on 13 November 1929. Only one person attended his funeral.
Despite the fact the experiment on Resolution Island didn’t work he paved the way for what are now other successful island sanctuaries in New Zealand. The writings he had done during his years observing birds also laid the foundations for further efforts to save the kākāpō in the 1970’s.
He is buried at Hillsborough Cemetery in Auckland.
Picture from the Te Papa Collection.
Fran and Deb's updates