New tuatara facility set to open next month

Invercargill’s much-anticipated new tuatara enclosure will be unveiled at an official opening event next month, followed by a public opening day celebration.

The opening events will mark the first time the tuatara have been seen in public since they vacated their home in the Southland Museum and Art Gallery last year.

Invercargill City Council Parks and Recreation Manager Caroline Rain said the community had long anticipated the opening of the new enclosure, which commenced construction in November, and to once again get a possible peek of Invercargill’s oldest resident, Henry.

“This spectacular new facility is designed to cater to the specific needs of the tuatara, offering everything essential for their wellbeing, comprising of a natural environment appropriate for the species,” Rain said.

“It provides visitors with an extraordinary opportunity to observe the tuatara up close, and while they may be hiding in their burrows for the cold winter months, hopefully they’ll pop out to say kia ora,” Rain said.

Located within the Queens Park Animal Reserve, the new facility can house up to 18 tuatara, and includes a hospital pen, working spaces for Living Species Officers, and large glass viewing windows for visitors to observe the tuatara in their daily routines.

The project team had worked closely with the Tuatara Recovery Group involving iwi, Department of Conservation (DOC), species experts and other institutions, to develop the facility based on best practice from the animal husbandry guidelines for the care and protection of the tuatara.

Parks Performance Manager Kate Gough said the dedication and passion displayed by all involved in the project was vital for a unique species like the tuatara.

“DOC has a tremendous resource in the Tuatara Husbandry Manual, which was instrumental in the design of this facility. There has also been amazing mahi carried out to ensure Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Koata kōrero is accessible to all through the fantastic interpretation signage around the facility,” Gough said.

The facility replicates the natural environment of the tuatara and features logs, water features, and artificial burrows to encourage natural behaviours such as climbing, basking, and digging. The enclosure includes enhanced security measures to prevent escapes and protect the tuatara from potential threats.

Mana whenua representative Evelyn Cook, of Waihōpai Rūnaka, said the new facility was a positive demonstration of working in partnership.

“It is such a privilege to have these tuatara, he taoka nō nēherā, a treasure from the past, here in our city and for them to now have their own dedicated facility is a true milestone for our role as mana tiaki.

“The process we have undertaken with our Council teams and DOC alongside our iwi partners Ngāti Koata and Te Āti Awa to develop this facility that focuses on what is best for these beautiful creatures has been heartening and has taken our relationship a step forward. I am thrilled to see it come together and look forward to inviting the community in to share this new experience.”

Designed by Christchurch-based firm Studio4 and built by Calder Stewart’s Invercargill branch, the enclosure was completed in May. Studio4’s Matt Sloper said the design concept for the facility draws on the island homeland of the tuatara, at the top of Te Waipounamu/South Island. The unique shape of the facility references the spiny back of the tuatara.

The new enclosure is part of Council’s Project 1225, which also includes Te Unua Museum of Southland, set to open in 2026, and Te Pātaka Taoka Southern Regional Collections Storage Facility, completed in December 2023.

The tuatara enclosure will be officially opened at a private, formal event on Friday 7 June, where its new name will also be unveiled.

On Saturday 8 June, a public open day will be held from 10am to 1pm. Billed as Henry’s Housewarming, the free event will feature kids’ activities, kai and tuatara talks from the Council’s Living Species Officers.