The Alexandra hills. Credit: Anna Yeoman
Central Otago Ecological Trust Chair
On any given lunchtime you’re likely to find Dr Grant Norbury on his mountain bike, swooping the narrow single tracks and steep schist slabs of the Alexandra hills with a couple of good buddies. Back in the office, he’s a wildlife ecologist with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. As the Chair of the Central Otago Ecological Trust he’s also the driving force behind the creation of Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary.
After fifteen years, countless voluntary hours and a good handful of setbacks, he finds it hard to answer just why he does what he does for Mokomoko. “I’ve always liked wildlife,” he says. “That’s sort of a fundamental thing, underpinning it all. As a kid, I was a real dag, I’d go off with my binoculars and my motorbike and go bird watching while my mates went off to the footie.” More recently, on foot, skis, bike and kayak he’s explored a lot of southern New Zealand with his family and friends, and come to know and love the landscape, especially the Otago drylands of his home.
But why lizards? Australia, where Grant grew up, has huge numbers of lizard species. But ironically, he worked with mammals and plants there, and only since coming to Central Otago 27 years ago did he get into lizards. “They’re the mega fauna here,” he says. “You inevitably fall into lizards when you’re talking about biodiversity recovery in these landscapes.” Inevitable or not, Grant’s now a passionate proponent of the local skinks and geckos of Central Otago. “I want to see flourishing lizard populations here, that’s the bottom line.”
As an ecologist, it’s hard to escape the big picture. Grant’s view is by default landscape-wide, and while he’s thrilled with what Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary is achieving, one thing grates. “The problem is that it’s 14 ha, that’s the alarming thing.” A postage stamp, in a Central Otago that’s been so depleted of its natural vegetation and animal life that its drylands are now some of the most transformed and threatened native ecosystems in New Zealand.
Grant doing field work in the Mackenzie.
Credit: Jeremy Norbury
Grant on field work in the Mackenzie. Credit: Jeremy Norbury
“What’s the future for biodiversity recovery? That’s a big question,” Grant asks. He acknowledges the huge number of things that community groups are doing. Some, like the trapping in the Wakatipu Basin, are on quite a decent scale. But real landscape-wide change is hard, because it demands the difficult things, like land-use change. “What are we going to be left with? Hotspots of biodiversity recovery, where community groups and DOC are working.”
While it may all be happening on a postage stamp of a piece of land, two aspects of the lizard work at Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary really excite him. One is bringing the grand and Otago skinks and jewelled gecko back from being locally extinct. The second is being able to help the DOC programme to preserve the genetically distinct Western populations of grand and Otago skinks in a material way, because they weren’t doing well in captivity. “That’s a satisfying thing for us, it puts an edge on it, rather than just protecting genetic groups that are doing well elsewhere.”
Amongst the lizard conservation community of New Zealand, what Grant and COET have achieved with Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary is highly regarded. Yet Grant is both cautious and understated about it. “It’s great news so far, but we can’t get too excited - when do you declare that you’ve succeeded in a translocation? The early signs are good. It’s going that way. But we can’t claim we’ve got robust self-sustaining populations yet.” He also won’t tell you that in 2018 he received a Queens Service Medal for his services to conservation. He’s more likely to tell you about all the other people who’ve helped, and how much he’s valued the contributions they’ve made.
For Grant, the biggest satisfaction of Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary has been an unexpected one. “I didn’t really anticipate seeing the enthusiasm in others, the interest in ecology from other people,” he says. “You go out to a field day and there’s a whole bunch of people there who are getting amongst it, and it’s something you’ve sort of created.” Conservation, he has found, is as much about people as about the animals. “Lizards are more of a physical thing, but when you see people engaging and all getting in together, it’s really good. It gets at your heart, that stuff.”
"When you see people engaging and all getting in together, it’s really good. It gets at your heart, that stuff.”
Grant and wife Dale enjoying tramping and travels