The Kakapo Man.

Photo from Margaret Merton

Conservation is a tricky business. You spend a lot of hours toiling over the same information to arrive at generally depressing conclusions. All things considered, if you are in the business of sustainability and you can go to bed care-free each night, you haven’t been keeping up with your reading. That is why positive stories are so valuable. When you find out about someone or some organization who is trying to make a difference and actually succeeding, it makes the entire struggle seem worth while.

One story that I often turn to when I am feeling overwhelmed is that of the Kakapo. The world’s largest and only flightless, nocturnal parrot, the kakapo is native to New Zealand where it evolved in total isolation from mammalian or reptilian predators for eons, before the arrival of people. The species was even able to survive the arrival of New Zealand’s indigenous human population, the Maori, which is more than can be said for its much more physically imposing cousin, the moa.

Unfortunately, what the kakapo could withstand from one human population, they could not tolerate from two and the arrival of Europeans brought with it a precipitous decline in their population. By the early 1970’s it was unclear whether or not there were any living kakapo. That is, it was unclear until New Zealand born conservationist Don Merton led a team of researchers from the New Zealand Wildlife service to Fiordland Island in 1974.

If you are an endangered species on the absolute brink of extinction, you pray for people like Don Merton to come along. In the field of bird conservation he is something of a legend, playing instrumental roles in the successful recovery of the North Island Saddleback, the South Island Saddleback, the Black Robin, the Noisy Scrub Bird of Western Australia, and the Mauritius Parakeet, to name a few. Between 1974 and 1976 Merton and his team found 14 surviving Kakapo, but all were male. On a subsequent expedition to Steward Island in 1980, another team led by Merton located what was possibly the last healthy breeding population of several dozen birds. This marked the first time that females of the species were confirmed alive since the early 1900’s.

The secret to Merton’s success lies in his somewhat radical methods of relocation and restoration. When he established that the Stewart Island Kakapo population was in steep decline due to feral cats culling adults at a rate of 56% per year, he managed to get approval to uproot the 61 surviving birds and relocate the entire population to three separate islands that were free of predators. In the hands of anyone else this move would have spelled almost certain disaster for the social dynamics of the population. But Merton, once again, pulled off a Hail Mary with the clock running out. Since he took control of the population in the late 1970’s, the adult mortality rate per annum has fallen to a nearly incomprehensible 1.3%.

By 1992, Merton had relocated a total of 65 Kakapo to breeding programs on five separate New Zealand islands. This strategy had the built in insurance policy of protecting the species from events that were isolated to one or two islands. The breeding program has proved remarkably successful and since 1992, from an initial population of 65, the world total has grown to 131 as of June 2011. The hard work and diligence of Don Merton and the other researchers and conservationists at The Kakapo Recovery Project is the sole reason that the birds have a fighting chance.

When I decided to profile this project, I needed the good news more than ever. I had just completed my first semester studying resource and environmental management, and three months of constant bombardment with facts about the current state of the world had started to turn me into a pessimist. I took the logical step of sending an email to Don Merton to get a personalized update about the recovery project and waited eagerly for a reply.

A few days after my initial email, I got a response; however, it was not what I was expecting.  The reply was from Don’s wife, Margaret, who wrote to inform me that Don Merton, the man who had devoted his life to fighting for species that many people wrote off, had passed away after his own battle with cancer on April 10, 2011 at the age of 72. Mrs. Merton shared with me that Don continued his work right up until the very end, a testament to his passion. In November 2010, he paid a final visit to Codfish Island to say goodbye to Richard Henry, the last surviving Kakapo from the population Don helped rediscover in 1974. Richard Henry had been part of the Recovery Program from the very beginning and, after contributing to the stabilization of his species, passed away shortly after Don’s visit at the approximate age of 100 years.

There are many lessons that we can learn from Don Merton and the Kakapo, some practical and others existential. Don’s 150+ published works including books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and popular articles stand as an immortal legacy to what he was able to discover about conserving endangered species. However, when we look beyond the research, we can see that Don teaches us about life as well. Be innovative and think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to try something new and radical if you have a good reason to believe in it. Fight for the little guy. And, above all, never lose hope. The power of the human mind in combination with the human heart is capable of amazing things. We can bring species back from the brink of extinction. We can restore degraded ecosystems to their former glory. All we need to do is wake up each morning with more passion than we went to bed with the night before.

When I look at the picture that Margaret Merton sent me of Don and Richard Henry during their last visit together it is hard not to feel sadness. Knowing that each of them fought so hard with so much success and that the world is now without them is a sobering thought. Then I step back and look at their faces. Richard Henry, cradled in Don’s arms looks contented and at peace. Living in the environment to which his species evolved. Free of threat from human or cat. Don, on the other hand, looks thrilled. It is as if standing there, holding Richard Henry and smiling for the camera, is the happiest moment of his life. I suppose, in a way, it is. Few people are able to look back at their lives and know with absolute certainty that the world is a better place for them having been a part of it. As humble a man as he was, it would have been hard for Don not to realize that. His expression is one of both joy and hope. Joy for having achieved as much as he has. Hope in knowing that he has provided the rest of us with a foundation for success. All we need is a desire to build upon it.