By Kathryn Howard, DOC’s International Partner Liaison
DOC staff have been working for over a year to return a pair of native jewelled geckos, which were illegally exported to Germany.
All native green geckos, including jewelled geckos (Naultinus gemmeus) are protected domestically under the Wildlife Act and internationally under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The German authorities contacted DOC because we act as New Zealand’s CITES Management Authority. This means we issue permits to people wanting to import or export endangered plants and animals; and with the assistance of the NZ Customs Service and the Ministry for Primary Industries, we control the border to prevent wildlife being smuggled.
One of the seized geckos could be matched to a photo taken by herpetologist Carey Knox on the Otago Peninsula in 2009. All gecko patterns are unique and Carey has been carefully documenting geckos there for many years.
As no jewelled geckos have ever been legally exported from New Zealand, we knew at least one of them must have been poached from the Otago Peninsula sometime between 2009 and 2013.
The decision to repatriate
We were asked if New Zealand wanted the seized geckos back. Because of New Zealand’s strict biosecurity requirements and the gecko’s unique status – native, but exposed to unknown pests or diseases overseas – the decision to repatriate them was not straightforward. Repatriation of poached, live New Zealand wildlife had not been considered before.
CITES sought advice from experts throughout DOC, Ngāi Tahu and Ōtākou Runaka, as kaitiaki of jewelled geckos on the Otago Peninsula, as well as officials at the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
We weighed up the potential risks to New Zealand’s reptile fauna, future international enforcement implications, animal welfare concerns, long term housing responsibilities, cultural considerations as well as financial costs.
Ultimately, we decided the geckos should be brought back to New Zealand – but that should not be released into the wild due to the risk they posed to native wildlife.
Wellington Zoo, which has vast experience in caring for reptiles, agreed to keep the geckos in quarantine when they were returned, and to look after them in permanent containment if required.
Babies on board
Back in Germany the geckos were transferred to an isolation facility in Cologne Zoo. I was lucky enough to visit the geckos at their interim home, whilst attending a meeting in nearby Bonn, and could see that they were being very well cared for by experienced staff.
The Zoo had commissioned a special cage to be built for them and had also organised a unique security detail – in a staff-only access area next to the lion enclosures.
Before we could bring the geckos home, Cologne Zoo staff advised us that the female had become pregnant (New Zealand’s native geckos are live-bearing or ovoviviparous and usually give birth to twins in summer).
We decided to delay repatriation due to concerns with transporting a gravid female. After reassessing the geckos’ condition at the end of their winter hibernation, and deciding they looked a little fragile, herpetologists at DOC and Wellington Zoo recommended the geckos be brought back to New Zealand without further delay.
The long journey home
Last Thursday, the geckos were collected from Cologne Zoo, sealed into a specially-made crate, and started their long journey back to New Zealand.
We were all concerned about the welfare of the two animals, particularly the female. Was she still pregnant? Were the young still viable? Would she give birth in flight?
We had been able to track the geckos’ progress as they flew homeward on NZ1 – just like track and trace on a parcel. Last international leg down the Pacific, one hour down another 10 to go.
DOC CITES Ranger DOC Ranger Anita Jacobs was at Auckland airport very early on Saturday morning to ensure all the paper work was in place and sent me a text advising the geckos, in their still locked and sealed crate, were about to board their flight to Wellington.
Wellington Zoo’s Simon Eyre invited me to be at the Zoo when the crate was finally opened in front of the MPI vet – an invitation I accepted with much anticipation.
Opening the crate
Before going into the specially prepared quarantine room, I had to check in, don gumboots and walk through a sanitising footbath. I was also given strict instructions not to touch anything. The seals and locks were cut off the specially prepared crate and the lid removed.
To our relief we could immediately see through the Tupperware-like containers that both geckos were moving about. They had survived the long flight home! The geckos were carefully taken out of their containers by staff wearing protective gloves, weighed and photographed. They squirmed about while having their photos taken and quickly disappeared into the native vegetation of their heated enclosure. The vet was very pleased with the level of activity and behaviour shown by both animals.
The geckos will not initially be on display, but will be kept in quarantine and given time to settle back into their natural climate and recover from their extended OE. When their condition has been assessed a decision will be made on x-raying the female so that the pregnancy can be checked.
After working on bringing back these precious taonga for over a year I’ll be looking forward to hearing how they are settling back into life in New Zealand.