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Return of the tuatara

Elusive species enjoying their rest at Motu's Kiwi enclosure.

Often mistaken for a lizard, tuatara are the sole survivor of a lineage as old as dinosaurs. Ecoworks NZ owner Steve Sawyer talks to Avneesh Vincent about the long wait to bring the reptile back home, their habits, less known facts and their significance in Māori culture . . .

As we arrive at the Kiwi enclosure at Motu, Steve Sawyer points at the two-metre high fence surrounding the sanctuary.

“You see, it's pretty hard to keep rare species without having a proper predator-proof fencing, as there are so many pests in Aotearoa,” he says.

About five tuatara were brought to Motu earlier this month and released in their new homes (burrows) in the kiwi enclosure.

The species are the only living representatives of an ancient lineage — the order of Rhynchocephalia — of reptiles that first appeared in the fossil record of the Middle Triassic Period, and have been around for more than 250 million years.

“That's why they are often called the living fossils,” says Steve.

Once widespread in Aotearoa, with numbers peaking over 100,000, the species almost disappeared 550 years ago from mainland New Zealand when people came in and brought pests such as rats — which ate the creatures “literally to death”.

“Hence we have dropped down the mesh in front of the fence to avoid pests, especially rats, coming in . . .” he says.

Pest records shows that rats can dig to a depth of 17m underground. It is very difficult to build a fence to such depth.

Steve says while the fencing did cost about $120,000, most of the work was voluntary labour from the community.

The enclosure area was once farmland and was donated by Dan and Jane Griffin for conservation purposes.

What started as a bare paddock in 2006 is now home to about 7000 trees, kiwi and now the tuatara.

“It has been eight long years of waiting, just to bring these tuatara back to Tairāwhiti,” he says.

Preparing for the tuatara's arrival

Ecoworks NZ, the Makaraka-based environmental management service that Steve owns, prepared for the arrival of the tuatara by first getting a permit, raising money for fencing, and working with iwi groups to make sure everyone was on board and the project signed off before establishing the enclosure.

“All your work has to get peer-reviewed by DoC recovery groups, so it takes a long time.”

Over time the enclosure began to regenerate with vegetation and was filled in with more invertebrates, insects, fungi and things such as mycelium which help create an environment that is friendly for species such as the tuatara to live in.

“Also, you have to time it just right — that's why we have brought them in right at the beginning of the summer. This will give them a whole season to establish and possibly dig their own burrow as well,” he says.

Tuatara, like all cold blooded creatures, depend on outside heat to determine their body temperature.

Steve says the reptiles like tropical weather and can often be found basking in the sun to warm their bodies.

The tuatara have come from Christchurch, from the Isaac Conservation & Wildlife Trust.

“It's quite a bit colder than Motu, so they will love this heat as this will be tropical,” he says.

Passing the first burrow, Steve says the reptiles are probably resting inside.

“In winter they go into a hibernation state called torpor,” he says.

For about four months the creatures lie with their eyes closed and sray still until the air and soil temperature warms up. Then they start coming back to life to feed.

Unlike other reptiles, tuatara have the unique ability to remain active in colder temperatures (5-18C) that would put other reptiles out of action.

“But that's not all — it is also interesting to know that the mean air temperature of the eggs in the ground during incubation dictates whether it's male or female hatchlings,” he says.

Warmer temperatures produce males, cooler temperatures produce females.

Female tuatara nest and breed only once every five years. The reptiles mate during January, the eggs are laid in November and it takes another year for them to hatch.

“In the world of tuatara, everything happens really slowly. But they are not lazy creatures.”

Steve says the tuatara are also known as ambush predators.

“They will wait there perfectly still waiting for the right-size predator to walk in front of them and bang, they will get it.”

After passing the second burrow, he points at fenced-off land.

“That fence you see out there is the other enclosure that we have built for only tuatara.”

With native trees such as makomako, matai and manuka being planted only last year, the enclosure required more tree cover and to “button up” the ends of the existing fence to make the sanctuary tuatara-ready.

We pass the third burrow, but have yet to catch a glimpse of a tuatara.

“I can assure you that they are in here,” Steve says with smile.

The reptiles have a good sense of hearing and are smarter than they look, he says.

Some of the tuatara that had been reintroduced at Nick's Head Station were trained to get out of their burrow by rangers just tapping or scratching on the side of their burrow.

“To them it sounds like an insect.”

Steve says he has heard they are able to even learn and respond to the sounds of a human, which they translate to “feed time”.

“They are actually kind of smart for a living fossil — but obviously they have survived this long, so they must be pretty good.”

With the fourth and fifth tuatara also being a no-show, Steve recalls a story about their tremendous ability to survive without food or water.

“There is a story of somebody who collected a tuatara from one of the offshore islands in the early 1900s. They were supposed to take it some place but they forgot about it and left it in a cardboard box under the desk for three months.

“Later, when they realised, they quickly went, checked the box and it was just there, nice and happy sitting in the box,” he says.

As we start to head back, Steve says the return of tuatara to the area is about building the environmental story of a species once lost, that is now back.

“We can start telling the story to our kids  and they can be linked in, as we have with Motu School and others,” he said.

The tuatara is endemic to New Zealand and also is held in high regard in Māori culture.

The translocation of the five tuatara was actually a gift from their kaitiaki iwi Ngati Koato to Te Aitanga a Māhaki.

Pene Gieger, who is one of the whānau from Ngati Koata, says the gifting process is how most negotiations between iwi take place. A small celebration was held at Matawai Marae earlier this month to bless their homecoming.

The creatures are a spiritual species and are also associated with several urban legends and myths, she says.

“I know that some of our older whanau among our iwi used to think that they should be just left alone, because they have what they call the third eye — a thing that allows them to see in the past and also the future.”

Another legend talks about their affinity to mako sharks.

“So when they bite, they don't chew, they shred like a shark would,” says Pene.

Although the kiwi enclosure is managed by the Whinray Eco Trust, Steve says the trust is working with Te Aitanga a Māhaki to bring more youth participation into the environmental mahi.

“It's about building that care for the environment through the kids, and just getting the connection back with our environment.”

NEW HOME: One of the tuatara from Christchurch is introduced to his new burrow at the Whinray Ecosactuary, Motu. Picture by Taylor Kirk Productions
PROTECTED SPACE: Steve Sawyer stands by the one entry point to the pest-free kiwi, and now tuatara, enclosure. The area, bounded by a predator control fence, has been pest-free since 2006. Picture by Liam Clayton
FOOD FOR Ferocious predator: At night when weta — like these Steve Sawyer is 'hosting' —are moving around looking for vegetation to feed themselves, the tuatara, being nocturnal, lie in wait until they hunt the creatures down 'with a bang'. Picture by Liam Clayton