Lizards in the Heartland

Department of Conservation —  15/05/2020

This guest blog is written by Anna Yeoman. She’s a science communication student, working with the Central Otago Ecological Trust in Alexandra, where she lives with her young family.

Two wildlife nerds are championing lizard conservation in southern New Zealand.

As a teenager Grant Norbury would head off with his binoculars and motorbike to go bird watching while his friends went to the footie. Carey Knox scrambled the hills of the Mackenzie country collecting grasshoppers. Nowadays they’re both based in Otago, working to save some of New Zealand’s beautiful lizard species – species which few of us even realise exist.

The schist outcrops of Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary, Otago.
📷: Anna Yeoman

Dr Norbury is a wildlife ecologist with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. At a stand-up desk in the Alexandra office he otherwise shares with a couple of well-used mountain bikes, he exudes energy, an energy that’s been put to good use. In 2005 Norbury gathered some friends to establish the Central Otago Ecological Trust (COET), a group with the vision of bringing back lizard species lost from the region due to human fire, farming and predatory mammals. When North & South interviewed Norbury back in 2008, COET was problem-solving its way into captive breeding critically endangered Otago skinks.  Establishing a wild population was a distant vision.

Otago skink.
📷: Carey Knox

Twelve years later, Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary is a reality. In the schist-studded hills behind Alexandra, 14 hectares of prime lizard habitat are now surrounded by a predator proof fence. Beginning in 2018, lizards long extinct from the region have begun to be returned. Jewelled geckos – the astonishingly green acrobats of the scrub – were first, followed by the foot-long rock-dwelling grand and Otago skinks.

Jewelled gecko.
📷: Carey Knox

Yet Norbury is cautious. “It’s early days yet as to whether we’re really succeeding. A lot of translocations fail around the world,” he explains.

Their current task is to establish whether the geckos and skinks have survived their first year or two in the Sanctuary, and whether they’re beginning to breed. This is no easy thing, as these lizards are notoriously good at staying hidden. That’s where Carey Knox from Wildlands Consultants comes in. “Carey’s the real expert. He sort of lives, eats and breathes lizards,” Norbury says.

Carey Knox and local school children Cohen and Lucy Anderson release jewelled gecko into Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary.
📷: Grant Norbury

“I have a bit of an obsessive personality,” admits Knox. “It was 2008 when I had my first encounter with jewelled geckos, and from then on it’s just been lizards and that’s it.” Recognised as one of the leading lizard experts in the country, Knox has a particular knack of finding cryptic things. He’s helped discover four new species of lizard in the Oteake Conservation Park in the last few years. “My hobby is my work. So if I’m not being paid I’m still out there looking,” he says with a wry smile.

Knox helps out with lizard monitoring at Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary and has so far re-found 36 of the original 84 jewelled geckos, plus seven babies. It’s a great result, as in the dense vegetation he’d only expect to see a small proportion of what’s there.

Knox and a team from DOC also sighted 16 Otago skinks and 14 grand skinks. “It’s a big relief!” Norbury grins. “Having seen half of what we released, just like that, it’s a good start!” This autumn they’ve found the first baby Otago and grand skinks. They’re thrilled.

Norbury and Knox’s passion for saving our dryland lizards has led to other discoveries.  “Something I didn’t anticipate was seeing the huge enthusiasm in others. Seeing people engaging in conservation and getting in together,” Norbury says. “It gets at your heart, that stuff.”

Norbury shares his passion with the next generation of enthusiasts. Jesse (2) and Tarn (4).
📷: Anna Yeoman

You can find out more about the Mokomoko Dryland Sanctuary’s work on their website here or watch a short film that gives a behind the scenes look at the running of a community lizard sanctuary in Central Otago.

This article was to appear in the May addition of North & South.

3 responses to Lizards in the Heartland


    What is being done about feral cats? There are hundreds of thousands out there and they are major predators of lizards, birds and other endemic wildlife such as large invertebrates?

    What is DOC doing about this?

    Lawrence McGrath 17/05/2020 at 4:15 am

    Thanks for taking care of those beautiful lizards, and raising awareness of them 🙂

    Shirley Newman 15/05/2020 at 5:53 pm

    Beautiful little creatures. So thankful for the people who care for them.