Preparations: 2005 - 2008
Fifteen years ago some Alexandra locals got talking. In their conversations, the seeds of Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary were planted. A group of people who loved their community and their tūrangawaewae (stomping ground) became aware that there were few opportunities for them to be involved in local conservation efforts. They decided to change that, and not long afterwards, the Central Otago Ecological Trust (COET) was born.
The vision of the Central Otago Ecological Trust was to see an inspired and enthusiastic community actively involved in conservation. Their particular focus was to recreate a diverse population of the lizard species that once flourished in their local hills, in this driest corner of the Otago drylands.
Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet): A place to stand. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.
For the first four years the work involved slow, dogged preparations. Their work was two-fold. On the administrative level they shaped their vision, applied for funding grants, and established an important working relationship with the Department of Conservation. On the hands-on level they began to build up their population of lizards that would bring their vision to life.
Their first lizards were Otago skinks from captive stock, sourced from lizard breeders. The aim of COET was to establish a breeding population of the skinks in Alexandra. They built a series of outdoor cages to house the skinks at the joint Department of Conservation and Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research facility in Alexandra.
After the first year, the news was mixed at best. An adult female was lost through a crush injury to the head from an unstable rock. Three babies were born over the Christmas holidays, but two were soon lost to unknown causes. The surviving skink was doing well until being placed back with the adults it was eaten by its own mother!
Yet it was a time of important learning, and they realised that everything they discovered, whether through mishap or success, placed them in a better position for the future.
The surviving skink was doing well until being placed back with the adults it was eaten by its own mother!
Prime Minister Helen Clarke meets an Otago skink supported by DOC's James Reardon. Credit: Karina Holmes
Grant Norbury and Trent Bell with a newborn and adult Otago skink from their captive breeding programme. Credit: COET
A major challenge they faced was the harsh Alexandra winters, where night time temperatures below -5 C are not uncommon. Although grand and Otago skinks have evolved to inhabit this area and cope with such temperatures, for a captive population there were still two key problems. The first was that these individual skinks had been bred in warmer climes, most within the North Island, so the individuals themselves were not acclimatised.
The second problem was that in the wild, the skinks seek out ‘thermal refuges’, places in their environment where the temperatures stay mild enough for them to survive. For grand and Otago skinks, their thermal refuges are the deep cracks in the schist rock outcrops. Here the rock provides a thermal mass which maintains temperatures a little above 0 C, while outside temperatures may plummet ten degrees lower. This posed the question of how to provide thermal refuge in a wooden and wire cage in town.
Tim Whittaker from DOC and Rob Wardle, a COET Trust advisor, got involved in solving the wintering problem. Their design for the 2007 winter involved heeble block ‘bunkers’ for the skinks, buried in shingle below the cages with skink access through plastic pipes. Temperature monitoring showed that the bunkers initially stayed considerably warmer than the rocks on the cage floor, which fell to -5oC. However as the winter progressed the bunker temperatures slowly declined and when they dropped to -1 C the skinks were removed as a precaution, and then spent a few days inside.
So for the 2008 winter they came up with an improved design. Sealed PVC pipes would be angled from the cages to 1 m underground where temperatures remain above zero. The skinks would be able to access the pipes and move as far below ground as needed to avoid freezing.
This design proved a full success, with temperatures within the pipes falling to no less than 3.5 C throughout the depths of winter. The wintering problem was solved! This was the first time Otago skinks had been kept alive in captivity outdoors within their natural geographic range.
The pipes for the 2008 winter refuge descend 1 m into the ground.
Tom Lamb (Trustee) and Jonathan Rout (DOC) work on constructing the 2008 winter refuge. Credit: COET
The interior of the pipe allowed skinks to move up and down at will, and simulated the narrow cracks they enjoy in the wild. Credit: COET
Engaging the community
Involving the local community was always central to COET’s vision. This began to take shape in some interesting and diverse ways. During the Alexandra Thyme Festival, a local artist Jenny Knowles created a limestone sculpture featuring Otago skinks, entitled Mokomoko Sanctuary. Another local artist Rebecca Gilmore donated a print of her painting of Otago skinks to be raffled. Pam Chapman wrote a children’s book “Skimpy the Skink”, illustrated by Derek Chinn. Much of this was done through COET’s partnership with the Central Stories Museum. The museum has since installed an Otago skink emblem out the front of the museum to attract visitors.
The local schools and preschools were keen to be involved, and visits by Grant Norbury with some of the captive Otago skinks was a wonderful way to spread the enthusiasm. He also gave talks to community groups such as Probus, U3A, Forest and Bird, Rotary and Otago Conservation Board. During the 2006 Thyme Festival he led a public tour of the proposed Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary and discussed pre-human ecology. Alexandra Primary School created a skink float for Blossom Festival, and had a Walkathon to raise money for the skinks. Interest in the long forgotten local lizards was beginning to grow.
Blossom Festical 2008
Grant Norbury introduces local kindergarten kids to the Otago skink.
Rebecca Gilmore with her Otago skink artwork. Credit: COET
Planning the small fence
Once COET had the backing of the local community and a captive breeding population of Otago skinks which were acclimatising to local conditions, they began to plan towards the next major step. This would be to undertake a pilot trial of translocation of skinks to the wild within a small pest-proof fence. If funding could be raised to complete this small fence, it would serve as a proof-of-concept before they embarked on creating the full-sized sanctuary.
To prepare for this COET began to look for an appropriate site. They discovered one in the hills behind Alexandra, where three large schist outcrops were surrounded by abundant fruit-bearing native shrubs. James Reardon and Lesley Judd from DOC’s Grand and Otago Skink Recovery Programme were consulted, along with fencing contractors, and all agreed that the site looked suitable for skinks and that a 190m-long pest-proof fence could be created around it.
A critical requirement of the site was the rock cracks that would provide thermal refuge for the skinks from the extremes of temperature so typical to the area, the extreme winter cold and the summertime heat. Throughout the winter, COET monitored temperatures within the cracks, and established that they stayed above 3 C. This gave them confidence to proceed.
A likely looking site in the schist hill-country near Alexandra. Credit: COET
Preparing the site
With a site chosen and a community ready to help, work could begin. Weeding and planting bees at the site were organised, and groups of volunteers from the very young to the very old helped out. The weeds they were targeting were the briar rose (Rosa rubiginosa) and everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius), and some native species were planted, such as totara (Podocarpus laetus) and porcupine shrub (Melicytus alpinus).