Today on Endangered Species Day, Auckland Zoo, with principal partner Barfoot & Thompson, is delighted to be announcing the successful recipients of its 2023 Aotearoa-focused Small Grants programme.

The 11 projects selected, working to save frogs, lizards, birds, invertebrates, and threatened ecosystems, span from Northland to as far south as Fiordland and Rakiura/Stewart Island – and highlight New Zealand’s stunning biodiversity and its many urgent conservation needs.

“In the Zoo’s 100th year, we were really keen for these grants to focus on helping some of New Zealand’s rarest and most over-looked species for which this support could make a significant difference,” says Richard Gibson, Auckland Zoo’s head of animal care and conservation.

“One of the many outstanding and innovative projects is on Takapourewa (Stephens Island) in the Marlborough Sounds. It is home to many threatened endemic taonga, particularly frogs and invertebrates (weevils, wētā and beetles) - species limited by available safe habitat and really up against the impacts of climate change as the island gets hotter and drier.

“Ngāti Koata Trust, whose iwi is kaitiaki and mana whenua of Takapourewa, will be sending conservation practitioners and taiohi (youth) to collect baseline data on these animal populations ahead of implementing habitat enhancement. It’s a fantastic multi-faceted project, supported by the Department of Conservation (DOC), that will further develop Ngāti Koata’s ecological skillset, strengthen knowledge to help inform future conservation management options, and deliver tangible benefits to threatened taonga” explains Richard.

Significantly, six of the 11 projects awarded grants are focused on lizard conservation, three of which are DOC projects.

While not widely known or celebrated, “New Zealand is very much a land of lizards, with more lizard species than terrestrial birds – 130 or so at last count, and likely to keep rising” says Richard.

“Aotearoa’s skinks and geckos are mostly small, secretive, and often restricted to remote locations, making them difficult to study and difficult to protect, which is why it’s so important we support every effort to study and preserve these globally significant reptilian treasures.”

One of the lizard projects will be undertaken by ‘Fauna Finders,’ who in early 2021 discovered a novel gecko species, Woodworthia “Sabine” in scree habitat in Nelson Lakes National Park. A second individual was discovered in the same area a year later. Yet to be formally described, local iwi Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō have named it Tikumu - after the large-leafed daisy that shares the gecko’s mountainous home.

“Our Zoo grant will help support further vital surveying work using a certified detector dog specifically trained to find geckos, so that more can be learnt about this newly discovered taonga’s distribution, habitat use, threats and conservation status to help inform future actions.”

The Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund Small Grants programme, established in 2012, has helped kick-start dozens of conservation projects throughout Aotearoa and around the world, and it recently welcomed Barfoot & Thompson as its principal partner for this round.

“New Zealand is home to world-renowned natural environments and extraordinary and unique wildlife and plant species that both nurture and are reliant on the health of these ecosystems to thrive,” says Barfoot & Thompson director, Kiri Barfoot.

“Barfoot & Thompson is extremely proud to be supporting Auckland Zoo’s Small Grants programme, which in this first 2023 round, is empowering so many skilled and inspirational Kiwi conservationists to play their part in helping ensure the future of this wildlife and wild places.”

In the Zoo’s 100th year, we were really keen for these grants to focus on helping some of New Zealand’s rarest and most over-looked species for which this support could make a significant difference.

Richard Gibson, Auckland Zoo’s head of animal care and conservation.

Auckland Zoo 2023 Aotearoa Small Grants recipients and projects

  1. Fauna Finders: Finding the elusive Sabine/Tikumu gecko (Woodworthia “sabine”) in Nelson Lakes National Park. First discovered in March 2021, this gecko is yet to be formally described. This project aims to improve knowledge of its distribution, habitat use, threats, and conservation status.
  2. Cape Sanctuary: Mouse eradication in the new predator-free habitat at Cape Sanctuary for the ‘nationally critical’ Hawke’s Bay skink (Oligosoma aururaense) - described as a new species in 2019.This project aims to establish an insurance population within a new predator-free habitat to safeguard the species from going extinct.
  3. Mahakirau Forest Estate Society Incorporated: Surveying for the level of risk that pigs pose to Archey’s (Leiopelma archeyi) and Hochstetter frog (Leiopelma hochstetteri) habitat in Mahakirau Forest Sanctuary - to inform future conservation management.
  4. Department of Conservation (DOC): Surveying to understand the contemporary status of Rakiura (Stewart Island) lizard species – the small-eared skink (Oligosoma stenotis), the harlequin gecko (Tukutuku rakiurae) and the cloudy gecko (Mokopirirakau nebulosus) as a first step towards these species’ future conservation management.
  5. Pest Free Howick Ward, Southeast Auckland: Monitoring and surveying of wildlife in the Mangemangeroa Creek estuary to collect missing data on the declining longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachia) population, the ‘nationally endangered’ Australasian bittern, and shorebirds including the bar-tailed godwit, and their habitats – to progress and enhance pest control.
  6. Massey University: Research to grow understanding of the relationships between local weather conditions (driven by climate change), the use of offshore marine habitats, and annual breeding success of the critically endangered tara iti (New Zealand fairy tern). This project will involve the development of a comprehensive database by combining data available through NIWA on local weather and physical parameters (like sea surface temperature and salinity) with new and existing stable isotope analysis of tara iti feather samples from the past 12-15 years.
  7. Department of Conservation (DOC): Assessing the conservation status of Sinbad skinks to inform a decision on their future translocation from Sinbad Gully, Fiordland National Park, to Secretary Island (Fiordland).
  8. Hihi Conservation Charitable Trust: ‘High-tech hihi’ – testing innovative monitoring techniques of hihi in Rotokare Scenic Reserve and Bushy Park Tarapuruhi. The use of a custom-made Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system and leg bands with microchips will enable the monitoring of hihi remotely – technology that will expand learning opportunities and assist translocation post-release monitoring.
  9. Ngāti Koata Trust: Baseline monitoring of wildlife (frogs and invertebrates including the Ngaio weevil (Anagotus stephenensis), Cook Strait giant wētā (Deinacrida rugosa), and Cook Strait click beetle (Amychus granulatus)) on Takapourewa / Stephens Island, Marlborough Sounds, ahead of habitat enhancement.
  10. University of Otago: Molecular sexing as a tool for the conservation of the ‘nationally critical’ cobble skink. This project will use existing samples from wild-caught cobble skinks and cutting-edge genomic techniques to develop a genetic approach to testing cobble skinks. This test is the first of its kind for a New Zealand skink and is likely to be adaptable for sexing other Aotearoa skink species.
  11. Department of Conservation (DOC): Understanding the distribution of the newly discovered (November 2020) Ōkārito skink in South Westland. The aim of this project is to determine this species’ threat status, through understanding its distribution and relative abundance.