NZ’s kākāpō old boy found dead
14 Jan 2011
New Zealand’s legendary kākāpō ‘Richard Henry’, considered the elder statesman of the country’s rare native species and one who played a vital role in kākāpō recovery, has been found dead.
The rare flightless parrot was believed to be more than 80 years old, and is thought to have died of natural causes.
Richard Henry was named after a Victorian conservationist who pioneered work with kākāpō recovery and set up a bird protection scheme on Resolution Island in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island, more than 100 years ago.
Richard Henry the kākāpō was originally discovered in Fiordland in 1975 when kākāpō were believed to be extinct.
When a group of other birds were later found on Stewart Island, Richard Henry played a vital role by offering genetic diversity to the breeding programme, which now numbers 121 birds.
Kākāpō are large flightless parrots - the rarest in the world and have earned a reputation as the bad boys of the native forest due to their dubious sexual conduct.
They are nocturnal and have a distinctive ‘boom’ - especially loud during the mating season.
Kākāpō conservation - end of an era
NZ Department of Conservation Kākāpō Programme scientist Ron Moorhouse said that Richard Henry’s death marked the end of an era in kākāpō conservation.
"Richard Henry was a living link to the early days of kākāpō recovery, and perhaps even to a time before stoats when kākāpō could boom unmolested in Fiordland," said Dr Moorhouse.
Richard Henry had not bred since 1999, and had been showing signs of age including blindness in one eye, slow moving and wrinkles. A sample of his DNA has been preserved.
Sirocco - Conservation spokesbird
One of the best known kākāpō is Sirocco, who earned international fame when he tried to mate with a high-profile BBC presenter during filming the series Last Chance to See.
He later became the world’s first ‘spokesbird for conservation’ and is said to be saddened by the loss of a fellow bird that all his species looked up to.
"Richard Henry was a legend among us kākāpō. We all know the stories - back 40 years ago, everyone pretty much thought we'd all gone. But Richard and a few of his friends had somehow survived - I dread to think of the close encounters with stoats he must have lived through.
"What a life to lead. We'll miss him, but it's breeding season now and we're all booming away - for us, for Richard Henry, and for the future of kākāpō."
Dr Moorhouse says the kākāpō breeding season is well under way on both Codfish and Anchor islands off New Zealand's southern South Island.
He says that if chicks are hatched on Anchor Island, they could well be the first kākāpō chicks in Fiordland since Richard Henry himself was a chick.
"We had a great year last year when 33 chicks were born, and we’re hoping for more this year. The males are booming well, so we’re optimistic," said Dr Moorhouse.
"It’s sad to lose Richard Henry but the main thing is that the kākāpō population is growing and includes Richard Henry’s genetic legacy of three adult offspring."
It is hoped that the first eggs of the season will start to appear in February.
The Kākāpō Recovery Programme, backed by Rio Tinto Alcan NZ Ltd, NZ Aluminium Smelters Ltd and Forest & Bird, is the Department of Conservation’s longest running conservation partnership. When it began in 1990, the kākāpō population was 49.
Background: NZ conservationist Richard Henry
In 1900 Richard Henry, who was caretaker of nearby Resolution Island - the world's first island sanctuary for birds - foresaw the danger to Fiordland’s little spotted kiwi from stoats that were originally introduced to control rabbits.
Henry transferred more than 700 endangered native birds, including kiwi, to safety on Resolution and other islands in Fiordland. Between 1894 and 1900, he monitored and recorded the progress of relocated birds, proving that in the right conditions birds could survive relocation.
Unfortunately the predators also found their way to Resolution Island, and Henry - realising the futility of transferring more birds - moved north to the North Island sanctuary of Kapiti where little spotted kiwi still survived.
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