Don Merton probably saved more species from extinction than anyone on earth. If it wasn’t for his efforts we would have lost the Chatham Island’s Black Robin and the Kakakpo, and the methods he pioneered as used by conservation projects all around the world. Last week Don Merton died.
Don’s most famous achievement was his heroic rescue of the black robin. The species was reduced to five adults and only one fertile female called ‘Old Blue’, all living on a tiny rock sticking out of the sea in the Chatham Islands. By going against the “hands off” approach to conservation that prevailed at the time and translocating the surviving birds to a larger island and ‘fostering out’ Old Blue’s eggs to the local tomtits Don founded a population that now has 300 or so birds. Their future is a long way away from being secure, but the fact they exist at all is down to Don Merton’s creative thinking, hard work and perseverance.
Don also led the team that rediscovered female kakapo after that species was considered ‘functionally extinct’, and the team that captured Richard Henry, the kakapo he’s holding in the photo above this story. (A bird so important for the kakapo recovery program that his death was recorded by Wired magazine). On top to those achievement you can add hundreds of projects in New Zealand and overseas which Don contributed to, or made use of the methods he’d developed here
Nic Valence spoke to Don about the robin project a few years ago.
Nic also found a quote from an interview with Don that makes a fitting eulogy. Talking about New Zealand’s natural heritage he said:
’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.
Though I struggle to understand them, there are people who are not sold on the importance of conservation by comments like that one. So here’s another quote from Don, this one recorded by Douglas Adams when he visited Don and the kakapo as part of Last Chance to See
All we can do is perpetuate them during our lifetime and try to hand them on in as good a condition as possible to the next generation and hope like heck that they feel the same way about them as we do.
If we are so careless that we still lose the kakapo, or the black robin we won’t just lose a unique product of our countries long history; we will lose something that Don Merton, and thousands of other people have committed their lives to. If we let that happen we are vandals, just as surely as someone who defaces a monument is.