Sunday, April 10, 2011

Goodbye to a legend...

Renowned conservationist, Don Merton died today. As we tend to say in New Zealand, a mighty totara has fallen. 

Don and his old mate "Richard Henry" the kakapo

Someone recently described Don Merton as New Zealand conservation's answer to Sir Edmund Hillary.  Not a bad little comparison.  What Don was able to achieve for some of our native species was nothing short of staggering. 

I got to meet Don while traveling through the Subantarctic Islands in 2004. We had a great old time pointing out wildlife and going into raptures over sea lions, albatross and penguins.  Then, while filming "Meet the Locals" with TVNZ, we met with him and asked him to tell the story of the black robin.

If you don't know the story, it goes like this. The black robin, one of NZ's most endangered  birds, dropped to just 5 individuals when Don and the Wildlife Service team got to Little Mangere Island in the Chathams. In that 5 birds, was just one viable female, an older robin Don named "Old Blue". Thanks to some nifty nest-swapping and unlimited perserverance, the team got Old Blue breeding again, and saved the entire species.
After the black robin work, Don went on to lead the kakapo recovery programme, and again contributed to saving the species from certain extinction, due to nifty nest-minding techniques and total tenacity.  He has since gone on to advise on conservation projects around the world. 

In a strangely synchronous event, Don's kakapo-contemporary, the elderly kakapo Richard Henry (named for New Zealand's other legendary conservationist) died on Christmas Eve last year, after an enviable life-span of up to 100 years.  Richard Henry was the last remaining Fiordland kakapo, rediscovered by Don and his team in the 1970s. Shortly after Richard Henry and the Fiordland kakapo were discovered (all males), a remnant population of kakapo were found on Stewart Island (including the crucial females), and the opportunity to save the species began. Richard Henry's genes (because he came from a separate population) were very important for kakapo conservation, and he was certainly the 'elder statesman' of the kakapo clan.

Don and Richard Henry crossed paths many times over the following years, most recently when Don and his wife went to visit Richard Henry late last year. Don told me that he was very glad to have had that opportunity.  In correspondence I've had from Don this year, he seemed quite matter-of-fact about his illness, his one regret that he did not quite have enough time to finish all the conservation projects he was involved with.

I remember watching Don and his workmates on wildlife documentaries, when I was a kid, their work inspiring me to take up the career I have now. If Don has one lasting legacy among people, it was his unswerving dedication to the conservation of our most precious wildlife. I wish to help carry that torch, and I know I'm not the only one.


  1. Indeed a mighty totara has fallen....

  2. The epic of Old Blue had me obsessed as a child- Don has been one of my original heroes, and I now have a tattoo of Old Blue on my shoulder as my "Never Give Up' tattoo. That's the legacy Don has left- we can't give up, and we have to keep finding creative solutions to prevent further loss of our precious species.

  3. Nicely written Nic. His was an inspirational life, so thanks for sharing the parts you know of.