Last Sunday marked the end of an era in New Zealand with the sad passing of the conservationist and ornithologist and all round inspiration Don Merton. His career began just before the extinctions and translocations at Big South Cape Island, when I have previously mentioned the modern age of conservation in New Zealand began, and continued beyond his retirement in 2005. To describe his life as one filled with achievement is a major understatement, and what I present is a brief summary.

One of Don’s first jobs after completing his training was translocating North Island Saddlebacks, which were at that time confined to a single island off Northland. Earlier attempts to spread the risk around had failed, so Don and his team applied science to the problem, spending several months studying the birds in the wild in order to work out how to care for them and to decide what type of habitat to release them into. It worked, and the translocated birds were soon breeding. Today the species is secure on a large number of islands and reserves. The experience was to prove critical the following year when introduced rats reached crisis levels on the remaining island of the South Island Saddleback. Don was part of the team that went down to the island in order to catch and move not only the saddlebacks but also the last of the Bush Wrens and South Island Snipes. Unfortunately the only snipe they were able to catch died in captivity and the few wrens they were able to move did not survive, but the South Island Saddlebacks did survive thanks to the efforts of Don and his team.

The failure to save the wren and snipe had a profound effect on Don. “It was tragic, but it was good medicine to discover that extinction could still happen, and that the only thing that stood between extinction and survival was us. We learnt the hard way that we were the only ones who could stop something like that happening again. Until then we’d bee a bit blasé, extinctions were something we could blame our ancestors for, but suddenly here it was happening in our own lifetimes, things were dropping off in front of our eyes. It was an important learning curve, especially for disbelievers who thought we should just monitor the situation. We were wrong. We had needed to intervene, and it had been possible to do something about it.

This belief that it was possible to save even the rarest species, and the knowledge that it required more than just monitoring, when coupled with a steely determination to do so, is shown in the work with two species most associated with Don Merton, the Black Robin and the Kakapo. Both species had undergone massive declines since the arrival of humans and where in a perilous position in the 1970s. The Black Robin was restricted to a single  tiny island off the Chathams, and apparently had been for decades, with a world population of around 30 birds. The situation for the Kakapo was thought to be even worse, it was uncertain if it survived at all. The few birds that had been found in the southern Fiorldands had all been males, leading some to fear that the species might be functionally extinct. In both cases the situation actually got worse before it got better, particularly in the case of the Black Robin, which declined to single figures and a single breeding female, the indomitable Old Blue.

Don with Richard Henry, the venerable Kakapo that died last December. Image by Errol Nye, (Creative Commons Share-alike)

I’ll talk about each of the programmes in more depth in the future, but both used the technique known as close order management (COM), which worked with critically endangered species at the level of individual rather than population. The methodology was intensive, rather than more hands off. In the case of the Black Robins this involved cross-fostering eggs and chicks in the nests of Chatham Tomtits and Chatham Warblers, a complicated task that quickly boosted numbers of birds once it began. In the case of the Kakapo each and every nest ended up being followed with eggs being moved around and even chick taken into captivity where needed. Kakapo were moved around New Zealand before all eventually being placed on one island off Stewart Island. Black Robins were also moved around the smaller islands of the Chathams. Both species were pushed to the brink but pulled back just in the nick of time.

This work alone seems like accomplishments enough for any number of lives. But he did a great deal more in his life. He was sent to aid Australian conservationists in applying translocation techniques to the endangered Noisy Scrub-bird, a species with a tiny population in a single locality. He was also the catalyst for the creation of the Christmas Island National Park in Australia, which helped secure the future of the Abbot’s Booby. As well as being an early pioneer in the field of island restoration, clearing the first New Zealand Islands of rats in the 1960s, he was also part of the export of that knowledge, in particularly teaming up with the Jersey Wildlife Trust to help save Round Island in Mauritius, and helping protect critically endangered birds in the Seychelles by eliminating invasive rats.

People sometimes question the value of saving critically endangered species, the ones for who all hope seems lost. When asked about the value of New Zealand’s birds Don replied “They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has Kiwi, no one else has Kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out.” And thanks to Don, Kiwis, and indeed the whole world, still have Kakapo, Black Robins, South Island Saddlebacks, and many other birds.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.