Auckland Zoo releases endangered Kapitia skinks into the wild

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Auckland Zoo releases more than 40 critically endangered native skinks back to their original habitat on the South Island.

The Kapitia skink is one of 130 native skink species and has been on the critically endangered list since a small population of 100-200 people was discovered in 1992.

Auckland Zoo is releasing 42 critically endangered skinks back into the wild after caring for them since 2018.

RYAN ANDERSON / Tips

Auckland Zoo is releasing 42 critically endangered skinks back into the wild after caring for them since 2018.

Their situation became even more precarious after Cyclone Fehi ravaged the west coast in 2018, destroying 40% of their habitat. It was then that the Department of Conservation called on the Auckland Zoo to save and care for the skinks.

“Being able to return these skinks to their natural range is a big achievement, a big step forward,” said Richard Gibson, animal care and conservation manager at the Auckland Zoo.

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The DOC estimates that up to half of the skink population was displaced or killed during the cyclone.

Gibson said that even before the cyclone, skinks were “ridiculously threatened” by predators such as mice, cats, hedgehogs, rats, stoats, weasels and weka.

“Cyclone Fehi completely devastated this part of the west coast. Part of what he did was steal almost half of the [skinks’] known habitat.

This juvenile was raised at the zoo.

RYAN ANDERSON / Tips

This juvenile was raised at the zoo.

He said the cyclone set off a “wake-up call” for the Conservation Department, which had asked the Auckland Zoo for help.

The zoo received 50 skinks from a beach in Hokitika that the Conservation Department was able to save.

Since 2018, Gibson said the zoo has had “great success” in growing the skink population and caring for them, to the point that some can now be released into the wild.

The breeding program has seen the 50 rescued skinks increase to 65 to 70, and after four years the Auckland Zoo is ready to return 42 of them to their natural habitat just north of Hokitika.

Fifty Kapitia skinks were in the custody of Auckland Zoo after a cyclone destroyed 40% of their habitat.  This pregnant skink is in her 20s staying at the zoo.

RYAN ANDERSON / Tips

Fifty Kapitia skinks were in the custody of Auckland Zoo after a cyclone destroyed 40% of their habitat. This pregnant skink is in her 20s staying at the zoo.

The Conservation Department has purchased a predator-free area for the skink return, with a predator-proof fence where it is hoped the skinks can “thrive.”

The zoo will retain 20 females and three young skinks.

Auckland Zoo will release more skinks when they grow up, which is a “triumph” in Gibson’s eyes.

Between 200 and 300 Kapitia skinks remain in the wild.

The skinks will return to a predator-free area, fenced off by the Department of Conservation, near Hokitika.

RYAN ANDERSON / Tips

The skinks will return to a predator-free area, fenced off by the Department of Conservation, near Hokitika.

Kapitia skinks, also known as Chesterfield skinks, were not discovered until 1992.

Gibson said skinks are very different from other skink species because they have a very flexible, gripping tail – suitable for gripping objects – which is an “unusual color”: salmon pink.

The prehensile tail leads scientists to believe that the skinks’ original habitat was among the trees, although these were extinct by the time they were discovered in a dairy enclosure.

Like most skinks, the Kapitia skink is able to lose its tail to distract predators and run away, then push back its tail.


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