Tuatara journey up South Island to Marlborough Sounds’ homeland

Manager – Parks Performance Zealan Simpkins and daughter Charlee with one of the Tuatara.

Seventy-three tuatara have this week winged their way from Invercargill to their natural home in the Marlborough Sounds.

The Takapourewa/Stephens Island tuatara came from Southland Museum & Art Gallery (SMAG) and have been added to wild tuatara populations at two Marlborough Sounds’ reserves.

Ngāti Koata iwi, kaitiaki (guardians) of the taonga species, Kāi Tahu ki Murihiku/Ngāi Tahu papatipu rūnaka ki Murihiku, Invercargill City Council, the Department of Conservation, Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington Zoo, including veterinarians and tuatara specialists, have worked together to move the tuatara to their ancestral homeland.

The tuatara travelled direct from Invercargill to Nelson on a dedicated Air New Zealand charter flight.

Ngāti Koata Cultural Manager Louisa Paul thanked all those involved for helping to bring the project to fruition.

“Mā pango mā whero ka oti te mahi – through cooperation the work can be completed.”

Famed and much-loved tuatara Henry, Lucy and Mildred remain at Southland Museum, along with 14 other tuatara.

Louisa Paul says Ngāti Koata looks forward to its continued relationship with ngā rūnaka ki Murihiku and Invercargill City Council in their ongoing care of their taonga.

Tuatara in a travel tube

DOC Tuatara Recovery Group Leader Lynn Adams thanked Southland for its dedicated care of the tuatara.

“Tuatara are held at a number of zoos and wildlife centres as insurance for the survival of the species should there be a threat to wild tuatara populations. It also provides opportunities for people to see these unique, ancient reptiles and learn more about them.”

The tuatara being translocated have all been bred by Invercargill City Council Senior Living Species Officer – tuatara, Lindsay Hazley, who has been in his role working with tuatara for 50 years.

Mr Hazley said he was excited that the taonga were now able to return to their natural environment.

“In recent years, new partnerships with Ngāti Koata and Ngāi Tahu have been forged, which has meant that we are able to return these very special creatures to their ancestral home.

“It’s the absolute ultimate goal for anyone in my line of work – to see a species not only survive, but to thrive in captivity to a point where we are now able to release them back into the wild where they belong.”

The translocation was similarly special for Invercargill City Council staff member Zealan Simpkins, who is also Ngāti Koata.

“This is extra special for me, as being of Ngāti Koata descent, this translocation process is allowing me to reconnect with our taonga – being the tuatara, my whanau, hau kāinga and the people of Southland,” Mr Simpkins said.

The tuatara travelled in the cabin of flight NZ8952, cocooned in special transportation tubes sized to fit each individual.

Air New Zealand Head of Sustainability Lisa Daniell says the translocation is significant for the airline.

“Under our longstanding partnership with DOC we’ve transported nearly 4,000 threatened species and conservation dogs to date. We’re delighted to have helped move this number of tuatara, and it’s been really positive to see so many different organisations and sectors working together on this dedicated flight, for the good of this incredible species.”