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Tuatara to get head-start thanks to San Diego Zoo

The World-Famous San Diego Zoo has come to the rescue of 430 baby tuatara, funding a $40,000 Victoria University head-start facility.

The tuatara were hatched last year at Victoria University as part of a research project led by New Zealand’s foremost expert on tuatara conservation, Professor Charles Daugherty.

The project investigates how the sex of tuatara can be manipulated by changing the temperature at which eggs are incubated, and whether this has any impact on the reptiles’ survival abilities.

But the baby boom has meant that a special home is needed to give the tuatara a five-year head-start before they are released back into nature.

Step in San Diego Zoo. The zoo, a private organisation committed to the conservation of rare species, is helping to build and run a special head-start facility.

“The head-start facility will help the tuatara make the transition back to nature,” says Professor Daugherty. “It’s a simple, predator-proof structure with fences penetrating the ground so that the tuatara can’t dig their way out. A mesh over the top is designed to ensure that insects – which provide food for the tuatara – can get in.”

The tuatara will be maintained at the head-start facility for about five years before being transferred to islands to found new populations. It is likely they will end up on the Rangitotos, a group of three islands east of D’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds, as part of a major ecological restoration project there.

As part of the project, Victoria University and San Diego Zoo aim to develop a conservation education programme to be implemented by the Zoo and New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Victoria University staff member Sue Keall is currently in San Diego, working with the Zoo’s Conservation Education Unit.

San Diego Zoo’s Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Don Boyer, says the zoo is looking forward to further collaboration with Victoria University staff, particularly on the conservation education programme.

“It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement,” he said. “This kind of partnership is very important to us, because we are looking to embrace more and more in situ conservation initiatives. We hope to become more involved in the future.”

Professor Daugherty says Victoria is tremendously grateful to San Diego Zoo for its involvement. “San Diego Zoo has played a major role in the success story that is tuatara conservation,” he says.

“Since 1989, the zoo has provided around $150,000 in funding and expertise for a variety of tuatara conservation projects. That’s a major commitment and one which has been of great benefit to New Zealand. I’m delighted that we can now work together on the head-start facility.”

Professor Daugherty also acknowledged the support provided to the head-start facility by Te Ropu Awhina Putaiao, the Science Faculty’s Maori and Pacific Nations student mentoring scheme; and the Wellington Girl Guides. Both groups have been fundraising so that the tuatara can feed on a tasty selection of maggots and insects.

Several Victoria University alumni have also provided financial support for the project.

San Diego Zoo’s financial support has been facilitated by the Victoria University Foundation. The Foundation is a registered charitable trust governed by an independent Board of Trustees. All donations qualify for a charitable gift taxation rebate. People interested in making a donation should contact the Victoria University Foundation on 04 463 5109.

Victoria University Wellington

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