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PICTURE: Dave Crouchley
Gary Aburn with kakapo dog Mandy, Maud Island, April 1982.
A life of conservation
A life of conservation
In April 1980, Gary Aburn caught the first female kakapo in in about 70 years. It was a turning point for the survival
of the species. The Department of Conservation says without him, the kakapo may be functionally extinct today. Last
week, Gary went home to Whataroa to die. Before he did, he conducted one last, modest, interview with
ary Aburn is more than
six feet tall. Born in
Northland in 1945, a
mechanic by trade, he
turned his back on the
workshop and took to
the hills, becoming a
skilled pig hunter and also got into venison
Known by everyone as Arab, he flatly
refused last week to explain how he acquired
the nickname, though he has had it since
As a young man, he honed his hunting
skills, and in the 1970s he shot and carried
out over 2000 deer. Hunting, he said, was
something you learned yourself.
Through hunting he met people involved
in the former Wildlife Ser vice, a predecessor
of the Department of Conser vation, and
as a result Gary ended up on Little Barrier
Island doing feral cat eradication.
His skills were soon apparent, and he was
in demand. He shifted to Stewart Island —
“ I invited myself along” — where the ser vice
was trying to save the kakapo, then one of
the most rare species in the world.
It became clear in 1980 that cats were
predating kakapo at an alarming rate —
60% of known birds in one year. Gary spent
many months trapping and poisoning feral
cats, much of his work unpaid. But the cat
control meant there were birds alive to breed
in future years.
In April 1980 Gary snagged the first
female bird to be caught for at least 70
years. Kakapo work had been ongoing
since the 1950s, but they just could not
capture females. They had even been
studying museum specimens collected by
early explorers in a bid to work out how to
Gary’s find proved there was a viable
population. By combining his hunting
and dog handler skills, he had proved that
female kakapo still existed.
Friends stress how remarkable his hunting
abilities were. Without him, DOC says, the
kakapo may be functionally extinct today.
Asked how he did it, Gary replied simply
it was a combination of his dogs and
spending time in the bush.
The dogs had got to see and smell kakapo
which had been caught and caged.
“That was a big advantage,” he said.
When he caught the bird he had a feeling
from the start it was a female, though it
needed closer scrutiny before that was
“All sorts of people had tried and failed,”
says friend Allan Munn, who is also the
director of the Department of Conser vation
Over the next 20 years, 86 kakapo were
caught on Stewart Island — Gary caught 44
“I caught six,” Allan says. “ The next best
guy caught 12.”
Only 28 females were caught, and again,
Gary captured over half of them.
At times, he even worked without payment
“He was an exceptional hunter,” Allan says.
“ Very fit, very committed. ”
Gary shifted to clearing Codfish Island
(Whenua Hou) of possums, before taking
up a range of work — rabbits on Enderby
Island, then to the French-owned St Pauls
in the Indian Ocean, clearing rats and
rabbits on Mauritius (Round Island) and
Macquarie Island (Australia). He worked
for the French, British and Australian
The best of all was working on St Pauls,
located between Africa and Australia,
though he spoke not a word of French.
He took dogs on a number of overseas
trips, and still has a dog, though this one is
“It retired when I did,” he laughed.
Gary Aburn arrived on the West
Coast in the 1980s to undertake the first
proper work on white herons (kotuku) at
Whataroa, for the Department of Lands
and Sur vey.
They needed someone to go bush and he
was their man, conducting predator control
from October to January.
Ken Arnold, who later conducted tours of
the white heron sanctuary, said they were
down to 20 pair when Gary arrived. The pair
struck up a friendship back then, having a
yak while whitebaiting.
Gary was part of White Heron Sanctuary
Tours when they started in the late-1980s,
as pioneers of ecotourism.
Gary liked the Coast. He found the
people were “bloody good” so he started
living in Whataroa permanently in the late
His last permanent job was cutting tracks
in Fiordland in 2008, but it was the kakapo
he remembered most fondly.
“ You just have to ask anyone who works
with them, they’ll say they are their
favourite. They are just an amazing bird.”
Earlier this year, he received a letter
offering him a QSM in the Q ueen’s
Birthday honours. He never did get to
receive the actual medal.
He needed to supply a photo, so he got
friends to take one, still not uttering a word
about the honour soon to be bestowed.
“I read it in the paper,” Ken Arnold
Some friends, Gary said, were surprised
to read he was a conser vationist. His QSM
citation makes no bones about it: “He has
been a significant part of establishing New
Zealand’s international reputation as a
leader in island conser vation . . .”
Gary Aburn was home in Whataroa this
week, with his daughter.
PICTURE: P H Moors
Gary Aburn, left, and
Ralph Powlesland tying
a radio transmitter on a
kakapo, Scollay’s Hut,
Stewart Island, 1983.
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