“I wasn’t all that excited about geckos at the time, until I actually went out there and found one in the wild, then I was like, s*** this is the coolest thing ever, why has no one told me about this!?”
Jewelled gecko on fool's beech. Carey Knox
“After seeing the jewelled gecko in the wild I just got hooked straight away. I have a bit of an obsessive personality. It was 2008 when I had my first encounter with jewelled gecko, and from then it's just been lizards and that's it.”
Carey Knox was always into animals. As a kid growing up in the Mackenzie Basin, he’d roam the hills, searching for grasshoppers. Yet while he came across some of the common brown skinks, it was years before he learnt enough to really engage with lizards. “I didn’t realise that we had such a diversity of lizards, as most people don’t.” Even studying zoology and ecology at Otago University he didn’t hear much about New Zealand’s incredible lizards, with much more of the focus being on our birds. “Hopefully that’s improving now,” he remarks.
It was the timeliness of his wedding during his Wildlife Management Masters degree with its accompanying desire to be close to Dunedin, that led him to his crucial lizard encounter. The only local placement option for him was with a jewelled gecko population close to Dunedin. And as he said, from that first wild gecko encounter, the rest is history.
Carey is now with Wildlands Consultants, and has been involved with Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary for a number of years. The Central Otago Ecological Trust contract him to help with the proposals and field work involved in lizard translocations, and to carry out the follow up lizard monitoring within the Sanctuary. “We're really lucky to have him. Carey's the real expert. He sort of lives, eats and breathes lizards. It’s his life. He’s really got incredible knowledge about the distribution and the behaviour of the animals,” says Grant Norbury.
Carey sees his real strength being in his field work. “I’m pretty fit, capable in the mountains, good at planning, organising and implementing field work, and seem to be good at finding cryptic things in vast landscapes!” he says. As such, he has built up a high level of expertise on our wild lizard populations. DOC now contract Carey to carry out most of their threatened lizard species work across Otago, Southland and Fiordland
"Carey's the real expert. He sort of lives, eats and breathes lizards.
It’s his life."
The North Otago black-eyed gecko, one of the new species discovered in Oteake Conservation Park. Credit: Carey Knox
He certainly has a knack of finding things. In the last 3 years Carey (alongside fellow independent herpetologist Tony Jewell) has been involved with the discovery and description of four new species of lizard in the Oteake Conservation Park. He’s found new populations of the rare Tautuku forest gecko in the Catlins, and the orange-spotted gecko in Central Otago. In Fiordland, the Awakopaka skink was known from only one individual spotted in 2014, until Carey spent two hours wandering in the Darran Mountains and in his words “fluked” the elusive second sighting. He returned January 2020 and has now found eight.
At Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary Carey has recently been carrying out surveys to see how the translocated grand and Otago skinks and jewelled gecko are going. Over several surveys through 2019 he identified 36 of the 84 original jewelled geckos, along with six babies, a highly encouraging result for an incredibly difficult to detect species. Especially so as volunteers weren’t managing to see them at all. In November 2019 he and DOC staff found fourteen of the elusive Otago skinks, another great result.
Carey is thankful that there is generally funding for him to do this work he loves. “Though I do a lot of additional stuff that’s not really covered, but it’s difficult to separate work and hobby because it's sort of the same for me. It’s complete obsession.” His wife and three kids, he says, are pretty used to his obsession now, and he knows he's lucky to have such a supportive wife!
Working with gecko has meant that Carey has had to engage with the issue of smuggling. Geckos, especially some of our colourful diurnal (awake in the daytime) geckos are highly desirable on the international market. This means that we need to be cautious about how and where we communicate about gecko populations. But Carey believes total secrecy is not the way to go either. “If people don’t know about them and care about them, their prospects long term probably won’t be great,” he says. He believes we need to keep it in perspective, and that long term the threats posed by predation, habitat loss and climate change are much greater. We can only tackle these by engaging our communities in their local lizard fauna. “Having advocacy and education on our lizards is the way to go,” he says.
“If people don’t know about them and care about them, their prospects long term probably won’t be great.”
Carey and his kids helping with a green skink translocation to Orokonui Sanctuary, Otago.
Carey catching a gecko high in a kanuka tree on the edge of the beech forest in a remote mountain valley in west Otago.