Fourteen copper skinks (mokomoko) were rescued from a housing development site in Te Awamutu and released into a safe and pest-free sanctuary at Rotopiko near Ōhaupō.
National Wetland Trust executive officer Karen Denyer, who was present at the release, says while copper skinks have been recorded in the Rotopiko site since 2013, this was the first known release of a threatened animal into the reserve.
"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. They leave very distinctive track marks, like tiny little hands and a drag mark left by their tails."
Waipā District Council's biodiversity planner Hilary Webb says the construction earthworks that are part of the Te Awamutu development would have impacted the copper skinks which are protected under the Wildlife Act, so they had to be relocated.
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"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'.
"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 at Ecology New Zealand, Jennifer Gollin, who was responsible for safely capturing and releasing the first skink, says the species usually had a short life span in the wild due to predators like rats and cats, but inside the pest fence, it could live for many years.
The first rescued skink was welcomed to the site by Ngāti Apakura representatives Hazel Wander and Bill Harris, with a waiata announcing "kua tae mai nei te mokomoko": The skink has arrived.
The skink welcome committee also included volunteers from Rotary Te Awamutu and the Rotopiko Weed Free Friday (WFF) group.
Both groups have worked 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 clears weeds and plants native sedges and shrubs.
If further skinks are found during the construction period, they will be expected to be released into the site as they are found.