Native copper skinks, or mokomoko, rescued from a housing development site in Te Awamutu are being released into the pest-free sanctuary at Rotopiko near Ōhaupō.
Last Tuesday the first rescued skink was welcomed to the site by Ngāti Apakura representatives Hazel Wander and Bill Harris, with a moving waiata announcing "kua tae mai nei te mokomoko" - the skink has arrived.
By last Thursday, 14 mokomoko had been released at Rotopiko.
On hand to witness the release last Tuesday were volunteers from Rotary Te Awamutu and the Rotopiko Weed Free Friday (WFF) group. Both groups have undertaken numerous tasks with the National Wetland Trust to improve the habitat for native wildlife.
The Rotary volunteers constructed wood stack refuges for the released skinks, while the WFF group regularly clear weeds and tend to planted native sedges and shrubs.
Waipā District Council biodiversity planner Hilary Webb said the construction of earthworks as part of the development would have impacted copper skinks which are protected under the Wildlife Act.
"While we would prefer not to destroy habitat, relocating skinks was a means of balancing development with protecting a species that is classified as 'At risk – declining' meaning they are at some risk of extinction," Hilary said.
"In this case, relocation was appropriate because of the low ecological values of the Frontier Rd site, the transferability of the skinks, and the availability of an appropriate site to receive them."
Lizard expert Jennifer Gollin of Ecology New Zealand captured the first skink from an area of grass and carefully transported it to the release site. Following the waiata and a quick health check, she gently released it into the wood stack, where it promptly headed off to explore its new home.
Jennifer said copper skinks have short lives in the presence of predators like rats and cats, but inside the pest fence, they could live for many years.
National Wetland Trust executive officer Karen Denyer said this was the first known release of a threatened animal into the Rotopiko reserve.
Copper skinks have been recorded in the Rotopiko site since the National Wetland Trust first started using ink cards in tunnels to detect pests and small native species.
"Copper skink detections have grown since 2013 when we got rid of rats, and in the summer of 2021 we had the most ever in our tunnels, at least one in every four tunnels," Karen said.
"They leave very distinctive track marks, like tiny little hands and a drag mark left by their tails."
If further skinks are found during the construction period, they will be expected to be released into the site as they are found.