Every year the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund supports several Zoo staff members to assist fieldwork operations around the world. This year Reptile and Invertebrate Keepers, Joel and James have decided to focus their efforts on three species of reptile, the Grand Skink, Otago Skink and Jewelled Gecko found in the wild of Central Otago.
Joel and James here to say kia ora from the bitterly cold at night, and baking hot day’s of Central Otago District, South Island, New Zealand! We are Reptile and Invertebrate keepers at Wellington Zoo, and one of the aspects of our job back at the Zoo, among caring for other species, is to look after our Nationally Endangered Grand and Otago Skinks.
The Grand and Otago Skinks are some of the larger lizards Aotearoa has to boast from it’s 100+ reptilian species. Unfortunately however, these two species now only occupy 8% of their former distribution, localised extinctions have been recorded across much of the current range since the 1970’s. Both Grand and Otago skinks are entirely dependent on predator free, dry-land habitat types incorporating deeply fractured schist rock outcrops and schist rock tor’s, often cascading down into gullies that are also surrounded by tussock grasslands and fruiting species of plants.
The Central Otago Ecological Trust (COET) mission is to bring back species under threat, through local support of the COET volunteers, Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, Department of Conservation, Central Lakes Trust, Lottery Grants Board and the Otago Community Trust. Together they are slowly realising that vision has become attainable and establishing before them.
To protect the inhabitants of the sanctuary against introduced species that litter the surrounding landscape, decimating the local wildlife, a 1.6 kilometre predator proof fence was erected around the sanctuary containing 14 acres of opportunity to restore what Central Otago may have looked like before human settlement. The entire sanctuary is absolutely ideal for the currently 6 species of lizards residing there, including large schist rock stacked several meters high with tiers of flat schist rock tors and innumerable places to hide if you are cold blooded and scaly, our favourite! The gullies below complete the dry-land ecosystem with a small catchment of damper areas allowing a thick area for plants to thrive in such trying circumstances. All of the habitat offers ideal micro-climates and an overall impressively restored environment for sun basking opportunities and nearby retreats to remain hidden at the lizards' choice year round. Through this strategic land and species management the native dry-land vegetation is re-establishing itself all throughout the gullies and steep hills, including flowering shrubs and trees which help to provide vital food sources for not only the lizards but for the various invertebrates recreating an entire food chain.
To gauge the abundance of lizard populations we are in the field for as many hours as the day provides, tasked with finding as many individual lizards as we can, photographing them and matching these identifications to the ones released. In 2018, along with other zoo’s and private keepers, Wellington Zoo sent all of their Western Grand and Otago Skinks to establish the founding population of the sanctuary. In the following years, COET were very keen to see what lizards could be re-sighted and identified, proving their ability to survive through the harsh cold winter conditions. Not only have we found this to be the case, but also we have been very fortunate to find several sanctuary born juveniles. You can imagine how elated all involved are to share this news and realise the successful direction these species are heading.
It has been an absolute joy to tire our bodies out on this rugged landscape, and dedicate our time here to finding and identifying each lizard we come across. Thankfully the lizards are doing their bit too, allowing us to approach them for their photographs to be taken. Later on, their individual markings can be clarified back to an identification number, and we hear there’s even an individual called Bruce! The outcome of our mission here will help COET determine the overall health of each species that have been reintroduced, and what steps to take to further the success of these incredible species.
We would like to personally thank Grant Norbury (Central Otago Ecological Trust Chair) for allowing us to come down and assist with this survey. Your kind, dedicated, trustful and personable approach to the Sanctuary has left an impressionable memory on the both of us. We would also like to thank Anna Yeoman, COET Trustee, for showing us the ropes, or in this case sheer rock cliffs and up and down every slope over the course of the eleven days, not to mention with her 5 month old baby strapped to her chest. You’re amazing!
Conservation is at the heart of everything we do at the Zoo, and in our efforts to save wildlife and wild places. We would like to take the time to thank Wellington Zoo, through its Conservation Fund for providing support to make this trip possible. It has been a fantastic opportunity that helped us to expand our understanding of these species, and the harsh environment that they thrive in.