What’s a mokopirirakau, you ask? Well, recent publicity about lizards in relation to a proposed new chairlift at Cardrona has highlighted an often-overlooked aspect of this region’s biota – we have as many endangered native lizards as we do native birds. One of these is the orange-spotted gecko, also known as mokopirirakau.
The species wasn’t even known to exist until 1998, when it was discovered west of Wānaka. Since then, a few isolated populations have been found – and one, thanks to DoC and Cardrona, is safe from destruction from expansion of the ski field but not from other threats like wildfire. Central Otago has other gecko species as well – Southern Alps, Kawarau, and short-toed geckos among others. Not, alas, the wonderfully named barking gecko.
We also host some critically endangered skinks. Grand and Otago skinks are large, colourful lizards found in a few scattered populations across Otago. They can be seen in captivity at Central Stories in Alexandra, or in the Mokomoko Reserve near Earnscleugh. Skinks have shiny, scaly skin, long thin and almost snake-like bodies, and can run remarkably fast on their short legs. Geckos in contrast are more secretive, are often nocturnal, and very well camouflaged. They have satiny or velvety skin, usually baggy-looking, and are generally more colourful than skinks.
Skinks and geckos live on insects, fruit of native shrubs such as Coprosma (mingimingi), Meilcytus, and Muehlenbeckia (pohuehue), and sometimes each other. They are an important part of our native ecosystems, acting as dispersal agents — meaning they carry seeds from the parent plant to new locations — for shrubs and other flowering plants. Some geckos live in forests, but in Central Otago they tend to live in rocky areas with plenty of cover – tors, scree, and boulder fields.
The larger skinks also favour these areas, but smaller skinks (the ones you normally see) like long grass, shrubland, and areas with lots of cover. However, overall habitat loss – clearance of forest and shrubland, fire, and ‘landscaping’ for urban development – has put some of them at serious risk of extinction. Their greatest enemies are of course our introduced predators: rats, mice, stoats and ferrets, magpies, hedgehogs, and especially feral cats.
Another enemy is human: the more colourful and rare geckos are sought-after by collectors, and international lizard thieves can make a good profit by smuggling our natural treasures out of the country. They can also make a loss and be imprisoned!
Although the orange-spotted gecko, grand and Otago skinks, and perhaps even some as yet undiscovered species are highly endangered, the only protection they have from their enemies are two predator-fenced reserves, near Alexandra and at Macraes in Eastern Otago. None of the other known populations have any form of predator control, or even monitoring to see if they are surviving or not. The life expectancy of vulnerable species in NZ when they are not protected is not great! So what can we do to save these creatures?
Firstly, if you have long grass, shrubby vegetation, or rocky areas on your section and don’t live in a wilderness of concrete and manicured lawn, you may well have skinks in your back yard. If you have a big area of kanuka, you may even have a gecko or two. You can help them by trapping predators (see Wānaka Backyard Trapping via their FaceBook page for useful advice, and links to buying and managing traps); by providing shelter with piles of rocks or Onduline tiles (search ‘attract lizards to your garden’ on the Doc website); and by planting food species such as Coprosma and Melicytus.
Secondly, support larger predator control projects by volunteering to clear traps, or sponsoring a trap line or two. While there are no lizard-targeted projects operating at present in the Upper Clutha, there are moves behind the scenes to establish at least one lizard-focused trapping “hub” in the region: watch this space.